California hemp growers are likely to see restrictions ease as the state considers aligning its latest proposed changes with federal rules, according to the San Mateo County agricultural commissioner.

The state’s latest proposal went into effect on Jan. 12. Those rules created tighter restrictions. But just days later, on Jan. 15, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published its own set of rules, called the “final rule,” some of which pave the way for a more forgiving landscape for growers who have had to endure tight harvesting windows and limited options for disposal of bad batches.

As hemp regulations go, the state’s plan takes precedence. And until the state’s lead agency on hemp regulations, the California Department of Food and Agriculture, can harmonize its regulations with the USDA’s regulations, growers continue to operate in an ever-shifting landscape. The plant became legal in 2019 and is growing in popularity, primarily as a source of cannabidiol, or CBD.

Hemp, also known as industrial hemp, is indistinguishable in form from marijuana. Both come from the same plant. But in California, the law creates a distinction between the two: hemp has a concentration of the intoxicating chemical tetrahydrocannabinol of 0.3 percent or less. Past that point, the same sample is technically cannabis, which requires its own set of licenses for legal sales.

The state’s new regulations require the hemp plant to be harvested within 15 days of a sample being tested. This is different from the 30-day window that was the case in the state’s plan prior to Jan. 12. The 30-day period is also set out in the USDA’s final rule, which goes into effect on March 22.

Also, under the Jan. 12 changes, cultivators could no longer arrange sample plants to be picked by laboratory representatives. Instead, all samples now have to be taken by the county agricultural commissioner’s office. Additionally, laboratories with an older form of certification are no longer allowed to test hemp samples unless they were registered with the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture.

Koren Widdel, San Mateo County’s agricultural commissioner, said the Jan. 12 changes likely limited some growers as they could no longer contract with certain labs. Widdel is confident that the state will harmonize its regulations with the federal final rule, though she cannot say what those alignments will be. She was also reluctant to say how, if at all, the federal version would affect hemp cultivation should the state model its plan after the USDA final rule.

“It’s hard to say whether it’ll be easier,” Widdel said.

But because every state’s version of hemp regulations is reviewed and approved by the USDA there is always some agreement, Widdel said.

Zachary Eisenberg, vice president of Anresco Laboratories, one of the handful of labs that test hemp samples in the Bay Area, agreed that this set of regulations may not make much of a dent.

“Typically, just as we’ve seen in cannabis, regulations for hemp could definitely help in promoting growth,” Eisenberg said. “I don’t necessarily think these regulations will be impeding anything per se, and I think they probably won’t have too much impact on where the industry has been in California.” 

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