Jessica McKeil   |   June 12, 2019

Industries At Odds: Legal Cannabis vs Hemp

While the hemp industry is booming, legal cannabis cultivators face growing concerns over cross-pollination.
Jessica McKeil is a freelance writer focused on the medical marijuana industry, from production methods to medicinal applications. She personally found relief through cannabis for the treatment of her panic and anxiety disorder. She is lucky…

While many expected the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill to be a celebratory event across the industry, a storm is brewing between established marijuana producers and startup hemp cultivators. One would think that longtime cannabis-advocates would herald the passage of a federal law legalizing hemp farming.

After all, it’s a steppingstone towards legalization of the whole plant. Unfortunately, in some regions, there is little celebration going on. In many counties, blessed with sunshine and perfect growing conditions, a battle is shaping up between hemp and marijuana.

A Problem of Wind and Pollen for Cannabis Cultivation

(Note: The terminology differentiating the two crops is rarely consistent across the industry, and even within the regulations. For example, in the state of California, plants containing low-THC levels have been excluded from the state's definition of cannabis. Yet, federal legislation doesn't make this exception. To clarify for the use within this article, "marijuana" will refer to THC-rich strains of cannabis, while hemp will describe the low-THC varieties. Cannabis, if used, will represent the entire species.)

Both hemp and marijuana are cultivars of the same plant: cannabis sativa. They are closely related and if left to their own devices, easily cross-pollinate with one another.

In the wild, cross-pollination leads to genetically diverse plants and slow evolutionary change. In commercial crops, hemp cross-pollination destroys the integrity and predictability of the harvest. For marijuana farmers, it's even more dangerous.

Producers have spent decades perfecting the craft of keeping marijuana in bloom. Almost the entire value of the plant is from its flowers, with little value placed on the stems, stalks, and leaves. Besides their basic genetic contribution, farmers have almost completely phased out the male marijuana plants from the production process.

Producers are acutely aware that if a female marijuana plant in bloom is exposed to pollen from a male, it will transition away from flower production and into seed production. Once this begins, it degrades the final product. Seeds are highly undesirable, and exposure to male pollen is therefore strictly controlled breeding programs.

Across the US, where climate and regulation allow for outdoor cannabis production, growers have been lucky enough to avoid issues of cross-contamination. Common problems with wind and pollen, which have plagued other crops like wheat and brassicas, have rarely been a concern for marijuana. With the arrival of hemp as the new next-door neighbor, marijuana farmers now concerned. Hemp pollination would have the ability to destroy an entire harvest of medicinal marijuana plants.

Hemp Farming a Growing Concern Among Outdoor Marijuana Cultivators

Already, certain jurisdictions are establishing no-hemp zones to avoid the many issues of hemp cross-pollination. Across California's green belt, several counties have implemented memorandums to prevent hemp from contaminating their well-established outdoor marijuana products. It should come as no surprise that Humboldt County is involved, with a 45-day moratorium on hemp production applications (recently extended for another 45 days). Sonoma is another, which has placed an anti-hemp moratorium for a full year.

In Arizona, the story is similar. Medical marijuana producer Amado Management recently spoke to KOLD News 13 on their concerns about the possibility of a hemp farm setting up shop upwind from their property. Employee Damien Kennedy explained they are pushing for a 10-mile land barrier between the two crops to preserve the integrity of each. Without this precaution, hemp could mean the end of their medical integrity,  as Kennedy stated, "It'll pollinate. It'll form seeds, and it will be done for us."

Pennsylvania is one of the few states with any regulatory precautions in place protecting marijuana from neighboring hemp fields. They have a relatively new medical marijuana program, and if the number of applications is an accurate predictor, a soon booming hemp industry. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that over 300 requests to grow hemp have flooded the Department of Agriculture in recent months.

At least Pennsylvania has required a three-mile buffer between the two crops. Other states will surely follow suit as hemp regulations unfold across the country, and marijuana producers raise awareness on the issue.

Hemp Versus Marijuana

Hemp farming is legitimately striking fear into the hearts of established marijuana operations. A decade ago, it would have been laughable to hear about the situation as it is currently unfolding. Legalized hemp production should be paving the way for opening up federal marijuana regulation. Instead, states are experiencing a strange twilight zone with one industry pitted against the other.

Unlike in other industries, where cross-contamination has already led to several high profile court cases, and in-depth study, there are few real-life details about how hemp could contaminate marijuana. To date, it's mostly speculation. How close is too close? Does greenhouse cannabis cultivation face any threat at all from close quarter hemp crops? Do the flowering periods overlap? Can marijuana somehow impact hemp? There is a lot to learn.

Marijuana facilities in Humboldt County and beyond are making their concerns known about the possibilities of hemp cross-pollination. Their concerns are valid, as one stray gust of wind could potentially ruin a company. Both hemp and marijuana cultivators must cooperate with regional governments to set appropriate regulations on buffer zones between crops. Without buffers, a single windy day could ruin a field of medicinal plants in one fell swoop.

 

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