At Tuesday’s Merced County Board of Supervisors meeting, leaders were asked to provide guidance on a proposed hemp ordinance drafted over the past several months.
A decision was made that the draft ordinance for industrial hemp cultivation would be forwarded to the Planning Commission for recommendations.
As it stands now, the proposed ordinance provides for cultivation of hemp outdoors and in greenhouses with licenses for transplant, but does not provide for indoor cultivation. The setback for growing hemp is proposed to be 200 feet from any residence, 200 feet from any parcel line unless under common ownership or management, and 1,000 feet from sensitive receptors, such as churches and schools.
Addressing indoor cultivation in greenhouses during the meeting, Supervisor Scott Silveira said, “What you can’t see, you don’t know what is going on.”
He was concerned about potential “bad actors” taking advantage of that fact and violating the ordinance.
Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza, on the other hand, advocated for indoor cultivation to be added to the ordinance, but was comfortable forwarding it to the Planning Commission as drafted with the understanding that the board will have opportunities to modify the ordinance later.
It was mentioned that Supervisor Daron McDaniel, who was absent from the meeting, supports allowing indoor cultivation as well.
In the draft ordinance, the minimum parcel size for the crop is 20 acres, and the zone is A-1. But at Tuesday’s meeting, the idea of expanding zoning to A-2 was brought forward.
During the public hearing on the matter, a criticism of the draft ordinance was that the ability to farm hemp should not be limited only to property owners with 20 or more acres.
When introducing the item at the meeting, County Executive Officer Jim Brown described the steps taken thus far resulting in the draft ordinance.
He said, “We have reached out to the ag industry and interested stakeholders.”
He explained that “multiple departments were looking at this”, and the county was trying to “provide tools necessary to put a structure in place for the next growing season.”
He noted, “USDA doesn’t have their plan in place, but the county is trying to align with where we think they’re going.”
By way of background, the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill removed Federal prohibitions on the cultivation and sale of industrial hemp in the U.S., subject to compliance with applicable regulations.
Hemp comes from cannabis plants that are low in THC (the substance responsible for the user’s “high”) and higher in the amount of CBD.
Effective January 1, 2019, State Senate Bill 1409 provided hemp can be grown for CBD.
CBD is a chemical which some believe reduces anxiety and pain, and helps with movement disorders and cognition.
Many people interested in cultivating hemp are interested in CBD production. Farmers are among those who stand to make a lot of money by planting and selling this crop.
But the production of hemp is complicated by the fact that the state and federal governments have not finalized their regulations.
So during the May 7, 2019 Board of Supervisors meeting, the supervisors placed a 45-day moratorium on the cultivation of hemp on unincorporated farmland so that the county staff could get together with the interested stakeholders, including the Merced County Farm Bureau, and put together the draft industrial hemp ordinance.
The goal was for the ordinance to provide appropriate regulations before allowing hemp to be grown. The county staff was hopeful that the state and federal governments would come up with their regulations in time so the county ordinance could be aligned with them, but as of Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, this hadn’t happened.
One of the most important issues the County Ag Commissioner, David Robinson, has to deal with is testing.
To be considered hemp, the field crop is limited to three-tenths of 1 percent THC in the flowering tops and other parts of the plant.
If random testing finds that the hemp has between three-tenths of 1 percent and 1 percent THC, the hemp must have a second test.
If it goes above 1 percent, the Ag Commissioner’s office has to make sure the entire crop is destroyed.
There is language about abatement of the crop in the ordinance.
The draft ordinance allows for three visits to the field crop for testing, but that may not be enough.
An issue addressed at the meeting was how to deal with the possibility that a hemp crop could be used to hide a crop of cannabis, which is completely banned in the unincorporated parts of Merced County.
One idea proposed at Tuesday’s meeting was for an additional test to be held if it was suspected the crop was cannabis instead of hemp.
Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke was asked to weigh in and said, “We get lied to all the time.”
He said he would like some language added to the ordinance about levying fines, fees or sanctions on the land to cover these situations, but added that in any event his department could handle illegal marijuana grows masquerading as hemp.
He exclaimed, “We are actively and currently writing warrants for illegal grows for misdemeanor citations.”
There may be additional issues with hemp as well which could require the ordinance to be amended, such as hemp emitting an odor, and hemp harboring pests and requiring the spraying of pesticides, which has to be regulated.