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The complications of growing hemp in the Emerald Triangle.

Stories Thomas Oliver
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Ah, hemp. The redheaded stepchild of the Cannabis sativa plant. Rumors abound regarding its uses, origin, and dangers—and its relationship to mankind is perhaps more vexing and fraught with misinformation even than “true” cannabis.

Some of the first signs of humans using hemp occurred more than 10,000 years ago in China and Taiwan, making it one of the earliest plants to be cultivated. Its oils were used in pottery and its seeds as a source of nutrition. Evidence of hemp fiber being woven into rope popped up across Europe and Asia in 600 BCE and sporadically thereafter. Then it appeared in paper, clothing, and sails. Vikings brought it to Iceland, and hemp eventually found its way to North America.

In the early days of colonial America, farmers were required by law to cultivate hemp. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both espoused the great benefits of the plant. (My favorite hemp rumor is that Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper. This is, by all reliable accounts, false. The Declaration was drafted on parchment, which is made of animal skin.)

By the 1930s, due to a growing fear of immigrants and pot smoking, backed by shoddy science linking the plant to criminal behavior, the United States began ratcheting up taxation on the cultivation and distribution of hemp and its sister strain, cannabis. In 1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, labeling both cannabis and hemp as Schedule I controlled substances, effectively banning cultivation and consumption in all 50 states.

Almost a half century since the fed’s criminal scheduling of the herb, hemp is still surrounded by misconceptions and conflicting information. Let’s try and clear some of that up. 

Hemp is the Cannabis sativa plant. It is differentiated not by its sex (a common misunderstanding is that hemp is from male plants only) but by the THC content of its flower. There are both male and female hemp plants. Cannabis is classified as hemp when its THC content (by dry weight) is below 0.3 percent, a dividing line codified in the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018. This same act also made hemp legal, federally speaking. 

Today, hemp has become a major commodity crop in Colorado, the Midwest, and even Hawaii. Yet, here in the unincorporated areas of the Emerald Triangle, no one is legally permitted to grow hemp. (Hemp cultivation is, however, permitted in the city of Arcata.) The most common argument is that the ban is essential to protect existing cannabis crops from cross-pollination, which could ravage entire farms. Cannabis is one of the few plants that increases the number and size of its female sex organs (flowers) in response to prolonged virginity. Male cannabis plants typically use the wind to pollinate female plants and these grains of pollen can travel great distances given windy and favorable conditions. Pollination of female plants can precipitously reduce yield and quality—a huge concern for the region’s large community of cannabis farmers.

In addition, Humboldt County has a host, a veritable alphabet, of concerns. In its June 2019 adoption of a six-month moratorium on industrial hemp production (which was then extended again in December 2019), the Board of Supervisors outlined 27 (that’s A-Z and back to A) concerns regarding hemp cultivation. Many underscore the often vague and conflicting regulations between the federal and state level. Hemp has myriad uses, from textiles to food to beauty products to paper, making it especially difficult to regulate, as it must conform to multiple discrete industry standards all at once. Some of these, namely the food, beverage, and cosmetics regulations, have yet to be enacted by the California State Senate. Best to wait until they take effect, says Humboldt County.

Potency testing, too, is a worry for regulators and cultivators alike. The USDA has not yet released a uniform testing standard for hemp, so states are left to their own devices to decide which kind of test to use. Two of the more popular tests are gas chromatography, where a sample is simply vaporized and the resultant gases analyzed, and high-pressure liquid chromatography, where a sample is shot through long columns at high pressure to separate and analyze it. These different tests can produce wildly different results. Variations of up to 20 percent are not uncommon between testing types, according to a 2011 study. The potency spread of these results isn’t especially damning for cannabis cultivators but could be a huge problem for industrial hemp farmers, where keeping potency to a prescribed minimum is paramount.

As it has for years, hemp continues to confound typical classification. With its great and widespread utility comes a host of unique and intertwined challenges. In the Emerald Triangle, for the time being, cannabis is still the top dog. While local regulators do their due diligence, as they should, other states have seized the opportunity with both hands—hemp production nationwide is up 368 percent according to the USDA, with more than 128,000 acres planted nationwide. Will Humboldt and Mendocino counties neglect hemp to protect their niche? Or will these two adverse siblings ever coexist? 

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