By Courtney Sherwood
PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - Oregon farmers could plant the state's first industrial hemp crop this spring, a full year before businesses expect to start growing marijuana for recreational use, a state official said on Tuesday.
Farmers can grow the hemp in exchange for a $1,500 licensing fee and testing to confirm their crop does not possess enough intoxicating chemicals to get people high, said Agriculture Department manager Ron Pence.
But would-be growers of industrial hemp face a host of complications, including cannabis being illegal at the federal level even as prosecutors have cautiously allowed state experiments to go forward. So far, no one has applied for a license, Pence added.
"It's not clear if there's an adequate seed supply," Pence said, noting that federal regulations made it virtually impossible for growers to legally import seeds into the state. Once hemp is grown, federal law also prohibits producers from selling outside Oregon.
Marijuana, used by some for its intoxicating effects, and hemp, used to make clothing, paper, biofuels, foods and cosmetics, are different varieties of the same species of Cannabis sativa plant.
Nationwide, 19 states have passed legislation to allow some measure of industrial hemp production, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Last year, Kentucky, Colorado and Vermont became the first states to report legal harvests of the product, according to the Hemp Industries Association.
Oregon's industrial hemp law, passed by the state Legislature in 2009, is being implemented at the same time as state regulators draft rules governing the recreational use of marijuana under a ballot initiative voters passed last year.
Officials at the Oregon Liquor Control Commission said on Tuesday that individuals would be allowed to grow small amounts of recreational pot for personal use starting on July 1, with commercial sales likely beginning in late 2016.
Industrial hemp grown in the state must contain less than 0.3 percent THC, the active ingredient in pot.
Farmers have criticized the state's fledgling industrial hemp program for banning growers from manufacturing products from hemp seeds, which are commonly used to make cosmetics and food additives.
Rules also require growers to make a three-year commitment to the program, when some are only interested in growing hemp for a year on a trial basis, Pence said, adding the state Legislature was working to address some of the concerns.
(Reporting by Courtney Sherwood; Editing by Eric M. Johnson and Peter Cooney)