Cultivation of hemp and cannabis offers American agriculture a "do-over"


Anyone who has paid attention to the snowballing liberalization of state law addressing the cultivation use of Cannabis sativa (cannabis) as industrial hemp, medicinal cannabis or the recreational  may already know this ... but ... this a real game-changer, folks! But maybe not in the way you might you have thought. 

First, this is a fantastic new market(s) opportunity for many small business owners that otherwise might have not have such market access. Perhaps more importantly, that greater adoption of cannabis and hemp cultivation offers society the moment to re-think policy and law in a number of areas affecting sustainable agriculture:  energy and water use, the use of crop protection products and Integrated Pest Management strategies and the overall regulatory process. (There are, of course, so many more considerations, such state banking, tribal sovereignty, bankruptcy, IRS reporting etc.)  These choices are important as they can result in the balance between black market activity and well-regulated safe market activity.

Much of the work affecting these areas of sustainable cannabis & hemp cultivation is ongoing (or soon will be) in California, where Governor Jerry Brown signed a trio of landmark bills that overhaul and replace the now 20-year old Proposition 215 (Compassionate Use Act) - the first medical marijuana regulation of its kind in the United States when first enacted in 1996.  

Energy and water use

Cannabis sativa originated several thousands of years ago in water-rich temperate areas of Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. It's a fairly water-hungry plant of variable dimensions (3 to 15 feet), dependent on growing conditions and agricultural practices, so getting accurate numbers regarding overall water use is difficult. (I've seen estimates spanning 1 to 10 gallons per plant per grow, which is typically about 90 days.)  Scott Bauer and a team of people from the California Department of Fish & Wildlife (CDFW) released a study that found already-low streams in the three Humboldy County and one Mendocino County watersheds they studied were reduced volumetrically another 23% from illegal grow operations in the area from diverting stream water.  Although the estimates of water usage were from remote image sensing (and not actual water meters), this water diversion was found to have an effect on the amphibious environment as well as particular (endangered ... whoops) species.  Cannabis and hemp crops may use up to 2 - 2.5 times the amount of water that a wine grape crop would, and there are 10 times more pot farms (~ 50,000) than wineries (~ 4,000) in the state of California.

California initiated a pilot project run by the State Water Resources Control Board (Water Boards) and CDFW to address these issues in the North Coast region.  The Water Boards will develop a regulatory program to protect water from "harmful activities from cannabis cultivation" - the new state bills AB 243 and SB 643 direct the Water Boards and CDFW to protect instream fish spawning, migration, and rearing from the damaging impacts of outdoor cannabis cultivation - by prohibiting waste discharges from agricultural practices, land clearing and grading activities in rural areas and forests and issuing permits (and collecting fees most likely) that cover medical cannabis grown on private land.    

These are but a few examples of areas in which state departments of agriculture can work with the legislature and all other stakeholders to develop modern sustainable approaches to the cultivation of cannabis & hemp.

Pesticide use

As the opening graphic above portends, the choices we make regarding law, policy and regulation affect the balance between black market activity and safe, well-regulated market activity.  Let's consider the use of "crop protection products" - which include everyone's favorite most-hated word pesticides (i.e. chiefly, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides) but also plant growth regulators, inoculants, antimicrobials and biopesticides). Currently, the balance is way off and there is little *but* black market activity by all indications.  Of course, technically use of any EPA-regulated pesticide against its label use is illegal (and thus black market) and no pesticide labels currently include use on cannabis or hemp.  (Although one can use substances that are not regulated by FIFRA through any number of exemptions, such as the use of minimum risk pesticides.) 

EPA has offered a road map on how to achieve an actual label - through the use of the FIFRA Special Local Needs process - it is not easy, requires partnership with a current EPA pesticide registrant (think Big Ag companies like Dow, Syngenta or BASF) and would likely require some degree of data generation.  There may be some motion towards this at the Colorado, Oregon or Washington ag departments (which are the co-enforcers of FIFRA along with EPA), however, anyone going down this road hasn't made it public yet.  ( ... and anyone and everyone interested in trying to register pesticides for use on cannabis and hemp should get in touch with me!

The obstacle towards greater EPA consideration and instruction (and resources!) is, of course, the current DEA Schedule 1 classification. That's also why the BigAg/pesticide companies don't want to even think about it right now ... 

Reproduced from Small and Marcus (2002)

Reproduced from Small and Marcus (2002)

Regulation of agriculture for the small entrepreneur

There's perhaps never been a greater potential for inclusion in the marketplace for small business owners than the approaching hemp market.  This strikes me as the ideal opportunity to address regulatory issues that may impede this community. Not only is small business the bedrock of the US economy, it helps build community.  

Cultivation of hemp for any of 25,000 uses (by some estimates) is no small order and there will be more small farmers doing it than ever before.  And they will have small budgets. And they will need protection and education in a broad array of areas. There will simply not ever be enough resources to police this veritable army of hemp farmers that could result from continued liberalization of state laws, particularly if the legislative trend to limit production to one acre for certain small-scale producers holds across much of the country.  (That's a lot of one-acre hemp plots....)

Protection and education comes at a price however and states should be prepared to budget the dollars to implement successful cultivation conditions. This includes enforcement. Even though counties such as Medocino have passed their own laws regarding licensure, the enforcement of such laws can often be left to others - in this case, the CDFW and Water Boards.

Again, these are just some of the regulatory areas that state departments of commerce and law can work with the legislature and all other stakeholders to foster conditions for modern sustainable approaches to the cultivation of cannabis & hemp.

… each family shall have a plot of not more than (40) acres of tillable ground, and when it borders on some water channel, with not more than 800 feet water front, in the possession of which land the military authorities will afford them protection, until such time as they can protect themselves, or until Congress shall regulate their title.
— Union General William T. Sherman, Special Field Order No. 15, issued on Jan. 16, 1865

This 40 acres (the mule came later) is what Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton pffered former slaves.  What can we offer ourselves in terms of a "do-over" for American agriculture?