RIVERSIDE – Riverside County supervisors approved an interim ordinance prohibiting the industrial cultivation of hemp in unincorporated communities as a precautionary move against potential criminal activity.
The Office of County Counsel submitted the measure, for which the board voted 5-0 without comment.
According to Chief Counsel Greg Priamos, the urgency or interim, ordinance is needed to clarify that all forms of commercial cannabis production are not permitted in the unincorporated areas at this time.
“The unpermitted cultivation of industrial hemp may pose the same threats to the public health, safety or welfare as the unpermitted cultivation of cannabis,” Priamos said in an introduction to the ordinance. “Such urgent and immediate threats include, but are not limited to, an increased likelihood of criminal activity, the attraction of crime and associated violence, a strain on county resources, and a detrimental impact on agriculture within the region resulting from exotic weeds, plant diseases, mites and other insects that are prevalent in industrial hemp.”
Hemp has its advocates, who argue it has myriad beneficial industrial applications, including in the creation of fuels. No one spoke against the ordinance.
The county is in the process of developing a comprehensive regulatory framework under which commercial cultivation of marijuana may be allowed; however, those regulations are not expected to be brought forward until this summer, and they’ll likely be subject to approval by voters countywide in November.
County attorneys acknowledged that Senate Bill 94, which established the Medicinal & Adult-Use cannabis Regulation & Safety Act in June, as well as Proposition 64, which voters statewide approved in November 2016, open the way for industrial production of hemp, just like commercial cultivation of its close relative, marijuana.
However, the regulatory scheme is vague and slated for revision by the California Department of Food and Agriculture by way of its Industrial Hemp Advisory Board, which is expected to bring forward recommendations this fall.
The federal Agricultural Act recognizes that institutions of higher learning and state agencies, or entities under state contract, may engage in hemp production for research purposes. County staff said University of California Riverside is proceeding with a hemp research project, and the ordinance that the board ratified will have no bearing on the university’s objectives.
The main difference between hemp and unadulterated marijuana is the tetrahydrocannabinol – or THC – content. Hemp leaves have about three-tenths of 1 percent of the compounds contained in cannabis leaves, according to the Office of County Counsel.
“The physical appearance of cannabis and industrial hemp (is) virtually the same, and the only way to distinguish them is to test for the THC content,” the attorney said.
The complications of trying to distinguish between genuine hemp producers and businesses that produce consumer cannabis are sufficient grounds for prohibiting everything at this point, according to Priamos.
The ordinance will take effect immediately and remain enforceable by sheriff’s deputies and code enforcement officers for 45 days. The board can renew the ordinance as many times as it desires going forward, or enact a permanent zoning regulation, according to the Office of County Counsel.