Way back in the non-heady days of 2014, when legal weed was still just a green light on the horizon, some in the crowd at Portland's Hempstalk may have been a little surprised to see a labor union boss take the stage.
Jeff Anderson wasn't there because he cared much about smoking a joint. He was endorsing legal cannabis on behalf of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, the largest private workers' union in Oregon. He wanted the jobs he thought would roll in with the fields of hemp—marijuana's non-intoxicating country cousin with little or no THC content but plenty of industrial and medical potential.
"Let's quit using cereal stocks to make fuel when hemp is three times more productive!" Anderson said excitedly, to scattered and perhaps confused applause.
UFCW 555 ended up kicking in over $75,000 to help pass Measure 91—one of many strange bedfellows that supported the measure because it would also legalize industrial hemp.
Hemp and marijuana didn't stay together for long. Two years later, you see a lot of dispensaries selling psychoactive cannabis products, but you don't hear as much about hemp.
Even before legalization, Oregon had plenty of marijuana farms serving the medical community. But before last year, nobody in Oregon was growing legal hemp. And if outdoor recreational marijuana growers had their way last year, nobody would be growing hemp now either.
In 2015, the process for certifying hemp growers came in so late that a mere 11 farms were licensed by the Oregon Department of Agriculture in time for growing season. This amounted to only about 10 acres of crops.
But even with those small numbers, many outdoor marijuana farmers were worried hemp pollen would drift downwind and contaminate the genes of their prized psychoactive stocks, lowering their THC content. This was a particular worry because according to the regulations at that time, all hemp had to be grown from seed rather than female hemp clones that wouldn't pollinate. In Colorado, hemp farmers have even accused recreational farmers of setting fire to their crops.
"People have gotten some threats," says Cliff Thomason, an Oregon gubernatorial candidate who's also one of the few hemp growers to get seed in the ground in 2015. He says hemp growers are often greeted with suspicion by outdoor weed farmers. "I invited the people from Sungrown to come on down and inspect my operation."
The Oregon Sungrown Growers' Guild—the unified voice for the state's outdoor weed growers—has been one of the state's biggest advocates for regulating possible cross-pollination by hemp crops. The guild lobbied hard for a 2015 bill that would have decertified all of Oregon's hemp farms, placed a moratorium on hemp-growing, and, weirdly, outlawed hemp farms within 1,000 feet of schools. (That's a bit like banning quinoa near schools, but whatever.)
"It created an ironic situation, because you had hemp growers and marijuana growers at odds with each other," says Vince Sliwoski, a Portland lawyer who specializes in cannabis. "They're both growing cannabis."
But in 2016, it would appear that hemp and weed farmers have reached at least an unstable compromise.
While the hemp moratorium bill blazed through the Oregon House last fall and seemed destined for passage, the Oregon Senate surprised most onlookers by blocking the bill—with all Republicans voting, alongside five Democrats, to allow hemp farming to move forward.
This year, the ODA has registered a bumper crop of 77 hemp farms for a possible total of 1,200 acres—although this does not necessarily mean that 1,200 acres have actually been planted.
The hemp grown this year is mostly clones, says Thomason. Thanks to Oregon House Bill 4060, passed in April, hemp farmers are free to use clone plants just like the ones for THC-bearing cannabis that many dispensaries sell to home growers. Unlike plants that grow from seed, cloned plants are all female and don't spread pollen, eliminating the risk that hemp crops will dilute the stock of psychoactive crops.
Thomason says his farm, located near the town of Murphy in Southern Oregon, does grow some plants for seed—but he uses a variety with a very short time to maturation so it flowers before his plants have a chance to affect other crops.
The requirement that hemp farms be larger than 2.5 acres was also scrapped under the new House bill. And perhaps most importantly, the bill made a provision so that products made from Oregon-grown hemp—including CBD oils, salves and tinctures—could be screened by the Oregon Health Authority for human consumption.
But while clone use is widespread, it's not required. Hemp farmers could still grow flowering plants that cross-pollinate, near weed farms that could be affected, a situation Thomason says he believes has already occurred.
"[The ODA] rules are very underdeveloped, it's brand new," Sliwoski says. "They're eager for hemp people to get licensed."
Lindsay Eng of the ODA says the agency does not currently regulate cross-pollination.
"We regulate it as we would any other agricultural crop," Eng says. "Instances of coexistence occur in every part of agriculture. We do talk to both sides. We have had some marijuana farmers call. We recommend they talk directly with their neighbors to solve potential problems."
According to Sliwoski, the situation hasn't been tested in court, but it's conceivable farmers could sue each other if they believe their crops were affected by neighbors' pollen.
"It's a tort," Sliwoski says. "You can have a trespass claim. It is technically a physical invasion. Unless the state itself—through an administrative rule—makes a rule that says a hemp crop cannot be located [near other farms], it'd be between private actors."
Thomason says he's thinks rules prohibiting hemp crops from being located near other cannabis crops would be unworkable and worries that hemp could get pushed out of existence in Oregon. But he says he'd be open to a rule limiting the growing season for flowering outdoor hemp crops.
At the moment, Sliwoski says, hemp farmers accused of letting their crops pollinate a nearby field would have a pretty solid defense against lawsuits: "You could say, 'I wasn't breaking any laws.'"