Arizona medical marijuana farms have a plea for anyone looking to grow hemp when that becomes legal later this year: Keep your pollen off our plants.
State and federal lawmakers lifted restrictions on growing hemp last year, and some marijuana farmers fear a surge in hemp cultivation could send pollen blowing across the state and make their carefully-tended crops worthless.
A marijuana farm already convinced Snowflake town leaders to pass a rule requiring a buffer between the crops, and at least two others are looking for similar treatment from municipalities in other parts of Arizona.
The two plants are related, but quite different.
Hemp has very little, 0.3% or less, of the psychoactive drug that makes marijuana popular and also illegal at the federal level. It’s grown for industrial use and for legal “CBD” oil that people use for various ailments.
Marijuana grown for medicinal use in Arizona and other states is intentionally limited to female plants. If the female plants are exposed to pollen from male hemp or marijuana plants, they grow seeds and the flowers are less potent.
Because some hemp is grown with male plants, and because a hemp field would be much larger than a marijuana crop, marijuana growers are wary.
“In short, the potential for cross pollination of hemp plants and marijuana plants is inescapable if hemp is permitted to be grown in proximity to marijuana,” lawyer Timothy La Sota wrote to Pima County officials in January.
“And cross pollination effectively renders marijuana plants useless.”
Farmers want a 10-mile buffer
La Sota represents a marijuana farm in Santa Cruz County, near the Pima County line. The farm, which has 150 employees, is affiliated with the Nature’s Medicines dispensaries in Phoenix and Fountain Hills.
The owners are concerned new hemp crops in Pima County could affect their harvest.
La Sota was hoping to convince Pima County officials to enact a zoning ordinance to create a 10-mile buffer around marijuana farms to prevent contamination.
The distance of 10 miles is thought to be sufficient to prevent windblown pollen from reaching the crop.
The county decided such a change was unnecessary.
“It wasn’t that we are opposed to the marijuana farm finding some relief and protection from industrial hemp,” said Chris Poirier, deputy director of Pima County Development Services. “My concern is zoning was not the appropriate tool.”
Poirier said the county had legal concerns.
“They wanted a 10-mile buffer,” he said. “That would then preclude ‘x’ amount of miles and hundreds if not thousands of acres for potential crops from being grown, imposing then this prohibition on other people’s property rights.”
He said the county also was concerned that most marijuana farms prefer “some level of anonymity and discretion.”
“But in order to protect these marijuana growers, we would have to map a 10-mile circle or whatever agreed up on distance, and anyone could easily pinpoint the marijuana grows,” he said.
La Sota said the state Department of Agriculture has similarly declined to wade in with any rules to protect marijuana crops.
“It is sort of a curious situation right now with the local governments looking to state government, but state government saying it’s a local issue,” La Sota said.
If government agencies don’t step in, and cross pollination ruins someone’s multimillion-dollar crop, it’s likely the matter would result in a civil lawsuit.
Possible model in Snowflake
La Sota proposed Pima County enact an ordinance similar to one passed last August in the town of Snowflake. That ordinance was created to protect a large marijuana farm run by Copperstate Farms.
Copperstate employs close to 200 people, growing marijuana in a large greenhouse that formerly grew tomatoes. Ventilation to the outdoors could allow pollen inside if hemp crops were nearby.
Copperstate lawyer Ryan Hurley said the farm requested the ordinance after lawmakers permitted industrial hemp farms.
“We are a big economic driver in the town,” Hurley said. “I think they wanted to make sure the jobs there are protected. This was something they were amenable to.”
Many other marijuana farms in Arizona are indoor facilities, with less concern for windblown pollen. But not all of them.
Harvest Health and Recreation of Tempe runs a large facility near Camp Verde that similarly could be affected.
“It is on our radar, it is something that we talk about,” Harvest CEO Steve White said.
White said his company will work with the local officials to protect his crops and also consult with the state Department of Agriculture as it develops rules for hemp farms.
“We don’t want those local communities to lose jobs,” he said. “If you make a significant investment in a community, you want to make sure that investment is going to be protected.”