Four years after Santa Barbara County approved THC cannabis cultivation licensing and regulation ordinances, it appears that the Board of Supervisors is on track to regulate the female version of the plant — hemp.

The board on Tuesday heard the first reading of a hemp ordinance that includes a licensing requirement, opportunity for inspection and sampling, provisions for destruction of non-compliant or abandoned hemp, and a 180-acre cap for hemp operations.

“(The ordinance) will ensure a legal hemp industry for our new growers,” said Lottie Martin, deputy agricultural commissioner. “It will enhance local oversight with compliance tools that exceed those in state regulation.”

In 2014, the Farm Bill allowed universities to cultivate industrial hemp for research purposes, and in 2018, the bill removed hemp from the Schedule I Federal Controlled Substance List and directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop regulations for a new federal regulatory program.

In 2017, the California Industrial Farming Act was signed into law, authorizing the cultivation of hemp by registered growers and research institutions. However, Santa Barbara County continued to follow the guidance in the Farm Bills that allowed hemp to be grown only for research purposes, Martin said, adding that 32 counties have registered commercial hemp cultivation sites.

In Santa Barbara County, Allan Hancock College has an industrial hemp research program that began in 2020 and has eight growers participating with 179 acres being grown, Martin said.

On the first of the new year in 2022, the Department of Agriculture certified the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s plans, and now industrial hemp operations and operations growing hemp for research purposes are now required to register with the county, according to Martin.

“(The county) is currently accepting hemp registrations, so hemp is coming to the county one way or another,” Martin said. “This just gives us a little bit more leverage as far as keeping it legal and ensuring that our hemp growers have a nice legal, even playing field to deal with.”

In addition to state regulations, hemp growers must obtain a county business license to grow hemp under the ordinance. The grower must be the property owner or have written consent to grow hemp, and no cannabis species other than industrial hemp may be grown on the site, Martin said.

Growers would need to submit a bond for each acre of industrial hemp grown to cover the cost of the potential destruction of non-compliant hemp, and the bond would be returned upon successful harvest, she explained.

The county would charge the hourly rate to cover costs incurred to implement the program, and unpaid charges may be billed against the bond. 

In order to reduce the possibility of cross-pollination between male plants and female plants which could result in the growth of THC cannabis, the male plants must be pulled from the field before the flowering and pollen onset, Martin said.

Board chair Joan Hartmann noted how laborious of a process plucking out all the male plants from the field would be, and Agricultural Commissioner Cathleen Fisher nodded her head to reaffirm Hartmann’s statement.

The hemp fields would be required to post signage to identify the hemp with no THC being grown, and the ordinance allows for additional sampling following state protocol as needed, Martin said.

The county would collect hemp samples, and a state-approved lab of the grower’s choice would make the determination of the THC amount in the plant, according to Martin.

Hemp plants must test below 0.3% THC to be considered legal, Martin said, and a non-compliant field may be tested again if it tests below 1% THC originally. If it tests above 0.3% again, the grower must implement the destruction of the plant, she continued.

If destruction is required, it must be witnessed by the county. The ordinance also has a compliance component that would allow the agricultural commissioner to enforce provisions using administrative fines and suspend licenses.

The original version of the ordinance did not include an acreage cap for hemp cultivations; that provision was added at the request of the board in order to provide protection from “possible problems.”

First District Supervisor Das Williams first advocated for an acreage cap to protect the board’s discretion.

“My impression is that there are good projects, there are bad projects, and there are projects that can be made good. I want us to preserve our discretion to the maximum degree possible so I would advocate that we would establish a cap,” he said. “A cap that would not be written in stone the way we’re treating the cannabis one, but one in which we, since we don’t yet have the ability to come up with land use regulations … my thought is that we should establish a very small cap in order to provide some controls.”

The 180-acre cap was established based on the 179 acres of hemp that are already being grown in the county, and the updated ordinance includes a one-year amortization period for operations that register before the cap becomes effective, which is 30 days after the second reading of the ordinance on Feb. 1.

Four of the five supervisors were on board for the cap, with the exception of Fourth District Supervisor Bob Nelson, who said he was having a hard time with the cap because “we just don’t know enough.”

Because hemp is federally legal, multiple board members pointed out that the ordinance is not encouraging a hemp market, but would make growing hemp more restrictive by regulating the crop.

“The way I see this is this is the first step, I don’t think this is the last step in the process,” Second District Supervisor Gregg Hart said. “Fortunately, it does not seem like we have an avalanche of growers who are interested in doing hemp … since hemp is legal across the country, there are very many places around the United States that are much cheaper to grow this crop on an industrial scale, and I can’t see for the life of me why it makes sense to do this in Santa Barbara County.”

Hartmann said the “most important” aspect of the ordinance is the enforcement front, and that she has heard from the county’s enforcement staff that separating THC cannabis from hemp cannabis already creates “a huge headache” for them.

“We’re just trying to get cannabis on its feet and already facing a lot of market difficulties anyway. So why would we create this additional black market opportunity here in our county?” she said. “We’re at risk now. People can plant now.… We need to step up or it’s going to get out of control and then when it’s out of control, we’re going to try and regulate it and then we’re going to have all these legal non-conforming uses, and then we’re back into a mess that we’ve already experienced on this board and in our community.”

Hartmann was in support of the cap that holds the acreage to what it’s currently allowed and then reconsidering the cap when the THC cannabis market is stabilized.

The ordinance is scheduled to come back to the board next Wednesday for a final reading.

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.