The board of supervisors directed staff to draft an ordinance prohibiting industrial hemp cultivation in Calaveras County during a board meeting on Nov. 17.
Hemp is defined by its low content of THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana. While marijana plants and hemp plants are both cannabis plants, hemp has a THC content of less than 0.3% and is used to make a variety of things, from clothing to CBD products.
Up until the passage of the Agriculture Improvement Act in December of 2018, the cultivation of industrial hemp had been prohibited by federal law for decades, with some exceptions.
In response to the lifting of restrictions on hemp cultivation, the board of supervisors adopted an urgency ordinance in March of 2019 that placed a temporary moratorium on hemp cultivation in Calaveras County.
“The reasons for doing so were to allow time to develop permanent regulations to ensure that hemp cultivation did not adversely affect adjacent property owners due to odors, impact the regulated cannabis industry from cross-pollination, and create problems for law enforcement from those who would illegally cultivate cannabis under the guise of growing industrial hemp,” the meeting agenda reads.
“Regulation statewide is evolving, with 16 counties having either permanent or temporary moratoriums in place prohibiting the cultivation of industrial hemp. Twenty-nine counties have adopted some form of regulation and land use restrictions. The other 13 counties have no regulations in place and rely on existing state and federal requirements,” the meeting agenda reads.
During a study session on the issue, Planning Director Peter Maurer advised the board that they could either ban the industry, create a regulatory framework, or take no action, allow the county’s urgency ordinance to expire on March 12, and let state law determine the rules governing hemp cultivation in the county.
“Neither the state nor federal government currently provides any restrictions on the amount of acreage that can be used for, or the total canopy size of, an industrial hemp cultivation site,” the meeting agenda reads. “State hemp laws and regulations remain in flux, with both new proposed state regulations and federal review of the state’s existing regulations still pending.”
Maurer said that while staff had time to create an ordinance banning hemp cultivation before the ordinance lapsed, more time would be needed to create a regulatory framework.
“If it’s the desire of the board to create a regulatory framework, then it may be appropriate to adopt a ban with the understanding that that would be in place until we develop a regulatory program,” Maurer said. “I think, to be frank, most of staff that we’ve talked about (this with) would prefer to keep the ban in place. I’m not aware of a strong demand for hemp production in the county, but that really is a decision that the board needs to make.”
All five supervisors agreed that a permanent ban ordinance was the best course of action, voicing concerns similar to those that prompted the urgency ordinance.
“I’m more in favor of working forward on a moratorium until state and federal guidelines are more established,” District 5 Supervisor Ben Stopper said.
“I would support the idea of making a permanent ban until such time as everybody else figures out what’s the best way to do it, because I think we’d be running down a financial rabbit hole and a regulatory rabbit hole that no one really thoroughly understands at this point,” District 4 Supervisor Dennis Mills said.
“We made a commitment to try and get a cannabis industry going in this county,” District 2 Supervisor Jack Garamendi said. “Right now, we’ve got two types of grows in our county – we’ve got legal and we’ve got illegal. We throw in a third and it’s going to be grey, and it’s going to confuse everybody, including our law enforcement. So, I’d just assume, let’s do what we’re doing, and let’s do it well, and let’s do it safe and productively, and continue to move forward before we expand.”
Sheriff Rick DiBasilio voiced concerns about the costs of regulating hemp, the difficulty of differentiating hemp from marijuana, and the impact that hemp could have on the county’s marijuana industry due to cross-fertilization, which could damage marijuana plants and result in legal issues for the county.
“I agree with the board,” he said. “It needs to be banned.”
DiBasilio said that the county doesn’t have the necessary equipment to differentiate hemp from marijuana.
“It’s costly equipment,” he said. “Trying to decide whether something is legal or illegal is going to be a legal rabbit hole that I don’t think we want to go down.”
District 3 Supervisor and Board Chair Merita Callaway expressed concerns about the compatibility of the marijuana industry and the hemp industry in the county.
“We have committed to an industry, and we need to see how all that plays out,” she said. “At this point in time, there are no mitigating measures that we could apply that would be workable for Calaveras County. And until that – whether it’s five years, 10 years, three years – the board at that time can make the decision to bring this item back if it so chooses.”
In other business, the board appointed Jessica Fowler as Calaveras County Ag Commissioner/Director of Weights and Measures for a four-year term beginning Nov. 21.
“Ms. Fowler comes to Calaveras County from San Joaquin County where she served as the Deputy Agricultural Commissioner since 2018,” the meeting agenda reads. “Ms. Fowler enjoys the rural environment and started her career in El Dorado County as a Senior Agricultural biologist/Standards Inspector beginning in 2005. Ms. Fowler has a B.S. in Environmental Toxicology from UC Davis.”