The Humboldt County Agricultural Center on Humboldt Hill. | Photo by Ryan Burns.

SoHum cannabis farmer Mark Switzer plans to arrive at the Humboldt County Agriculture Center Monday morning to register as a hemp farmer, and he expects to be joined by at least a few others. 

These farmers say that after the county’s 45-day moratorium on hemp cultivation expires at the end of Friday, Agricultural Commissioner Jeff Dolf will be legally obligated to give them what they’re after.

“Right now under state law, the Ag Department has been directed to issue [registrations] to anybody who comes in with the $900 fee and their GPS coordinates,” Switzer said.

It’s unclear whether Dolf agrees with that position, nor whether his department will indeed issue those registrations. Phone messages and emails went unreturned yesterday, and according to county spokesperson Sean Quincey Dolf is out of the office today. 

What is clear is that the Board of Supervisors certainly didn’t intend to open the floodgates to industrial hemp cultivation by allowing the moratorium to expire. They looked poised to reinstate it at their Tuesday meeting until Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone said he’s opposed.

Reissuing the temporary ban requires “yes” voted from four of the five supervisors, and with Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass absent the board ultimately chose to delay the vote. When they meet again next week they’re scheduled to consider reinstating a moratorium that would last into late September. 

When hemp was unexpectedly included in the 2018 federal farm bill, legalizing it to be grown just like any other agricultural crop, it took state and local jurisdictions by surprise. And here in the Emerald Triangle it sent cannabis growers into a panic. They say the pollen from hemp — a variety of the cannabis plant containing no more than 0.3 percent of the psychoactive compound THC — could spread on the wind and contaminate their cash crops, to devastating economic effect.

Farmers like Switzer, meanwhile, want to grow hemp not for its traditional role as a source of fiber and seeds but rather to produce cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive compound commonly used to treat conditions such as anxiety, movement disorders and pain.

The crop is grown quite differently depending on what you plan to extract from it, as county staff explained at the supervisors meeting this week. It’s not clear whether the feds intended to green-light its cultivation for CBD by including it in the farm bill. 

Regardless, the market for CBD has exploded in recent years, with manufacturers infusing it into everything from foods and beverages to tinctures and bath bombs.

Farmers such as Switzer say CBD hemp should be treated the same as industrial hemp or any other agricultural product rather than requiring its cultivators to conform to the county’s Commercial Cannabis Land Use Ordinance.

It should be an ag department issue … because hemp is not a black market product,” Switzer said. “Nobody buys CBD for recreational use. I think we’d be setting a very dangerous precedent by setting a tax on medicine.”

Switzer says the county has over-regulated the local cannabis industry, forcing out the majority of farmers who don’t have the legal and logistical resources to navigate the complex new rules.

But other local cannabis farmers strongly disagree with Switzer’s stance on CBD hemp. Scott Davies, a board member of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance and owner of several cannabis companies, said throwing open the doors for widespread hemp cultivation could undermine the burgeoning legal industry.

“What the proponents of hemp in Humboldt County are really trying to achieve is an end run around the existing permit structure,” he said. “That represents a serious economic threat to our nascent and fragile permitted cannabis industry in Humboldt County at a time when we can least afford more avoidable economic pressure.”

Davies said he already devotes 30 percent of his own farm to CBD cultivation while complying with county regulations. 

“Why would we give an advantage to people who have already demonstrated that they’re unwilling or unable to go through the permit process at the cost of people who have?” he asked.

Expect the debate to resume at next week’s Board of Supervisors meeting, but perhaps a more urgent question is whether the lapse in the hemp moratorium will render that debate moot.

Patrick Goggin is a San Francisco attorney who’s been fighting to legalize hemp for 15 years, and he recently told the Orange County Register that the law is clear:

After lengthy delays, California regulations enacted on April 30 say that if farmers meet all of the criteria, complete applications, and pay their fees, agricultural commissioners “shall” register them to legally grow hemp.

“It’s a right,” Goggin said. “There is no discretion.”

Yet most counties in the state aren’t accepting hemp registration forms, either because they’re waiting on more information from the state or they’ve enacted moratoriums. Goggin told the Register that counties refusing to accept registrations without a temporary ban are putting themselves in a legally precarious position.

But when contacted by the Outpost, Goggin said he’s skeptical that a one-day lapse in our local moratorium would put Humboldt County in legal jeopardy. 

“That window is not enough time for [county staff] to process and issue the registrations,” Goggin said. Dolf said at Tuesday’s meeting that it would take about two weeks to process any registrations.

But would the county be legally obligated to process them anyway since the moratorium wasn’t in place at the time they were filed?

Goggin said that while he sees some validity in that argument, it would be difficult to force the issue.

“The only way for this to happen would be [for the applicant] to be in court on Monday and get some sort of order saying the application must be processed … ,” he said. “And if the moratorium goes back in effect [on Tuesday], I don’t see the courts saying that because a single day elapsed the farmer … needs to be allowed to farm hemp.”

Switzer and his friends may challenge that theory. He said he’s not sure whether their paperwork will be processed and their registrations issued two weeks hence, but that if they’re not he’ll consider litigation.

“We’ve joined several national and local hemp coalitions with lobbyists in Sacramento,” Switzer said. “And we’ll be encouraging anybody who shows up Monday to join these hemp trade groups.”

He’s also questioning whether the county can legally institute a new moratorium without more time for the public to review it. 

The battle over hemp farming in Humboldt County may just be getting started.

# # #

DOCUMENT: The (now expired) Temporary Moratorium on the Cultivation of Industrial Hemp