Two Oregon counties pause hemp licensing by declaring state of emergency

Two Oregon counties pause hemp licensing by declaring state of emergency

In response to farmers growing THC-rich cannabis under the guise of licensed hemp operations, two counties in Oregon declared a state of emergency over cannabis earlier this week. This will lead to a pause on state-issued hemp licenses in those counties.

Josephine County commissioners voted to declare a cannabis emergency March 9, the Oregon-based Mail Tribune reported. Jackson County commissioners followed a day later.

Under a new Oregon law, the counties’ emergency declarations will trigger the state to start denying applications for new licenses to grow hemp in those counties. Previously licensed growers can continue operations. The Oregon Legislature approved the measure, Senate Bill 1564, Feb. 28. It was signed by the governor March 7.

The law, which passed with bipartisan support, aims to help regulators and law enforcement bring existing cannabis grow operations into compliance. The agencies are overwhelmed trying to monitor the existing number of grows in southern Oregon, which range from fully legal to completely unlicensed.

Although it’s legal to grow all forms of cannabis in Oregon, sites must be licensed accordingly. High-THC growers pay more for licenses and must comply with rigorous state regulations.

Hemp, which has only trace levels of THC, has fewer regulations and licenses are less expensive. One of those rules, however, requires field testing for THC concentration — and some growers have reportedly been caught growing high-THC strains.

Last year, 53 percent of licensed hemp grows tested by state inspectors in Jackson and Josephine counties were growing THC-rich cannabis, the Mail Tribune reported.

Other growers are operating without any licenses or permits at all.

In an investigative report last year, the Mail Tribune said law enforcement found $2.78 billion worth of illegal cannabis in four area counties: Josephine, Jackson, Klamath and Douglas. For context, legal sales statewide were $1.2 billion in 2021.

In addition to the plants, law enforcement observed other problems at the illegal grow sites, according to the Tribune:

  • workers living in squalid conditions
  • water theft in a region hard-hit by drought
  • improper use of pesticides and other chemicals
  • garbage
  • electrical wiring hazards
  • evidence of illegal drug trafficking

The moratorium on new hemp licenses is retroactive to Jan. 1, 2022. It will last until the end of 2022 or the end of the hemp growing season, whichever comes later, Jackson County Senior Deputy Administrator Harvey Bragg told the Tribune.

Many in the hemp industry opposed the bill, citing the impacts it will have on hemp farmers who wish to grow in compliance with regulations. Lawmakers reportedly did ease some of the bill’s restrictions before passing it.

Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous noted that state lawmakers passed additional, separate measures to address problems at illicit grows, including aid to organizations that help exploited workers and a ban on hauling water to unlicensed or unregistered grows.