The San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors could soon consider legalizing hemp if it is determined the product’s benefits outweigh those of commercial cannabis.

County staff will be presenting information to supervisors before the end of September, in the wake of the state’s Legislature legalizing hemp last year with the passage of Senate Bill 1409.

Supervisors in April placed a moratorium on legalizing hemp that ends Sept. 22.

Hemp and its impacts on commercial cannabis were discussed Tuesday after San Joaquin County Sheriff Pat Withrow told supervisors that the THC level in hemp is lower than that of cannabis. It’s difficult for thieves, illegal dealers and even law enforcement officials to know that unless the plant is tested, he said.

“When officers pull over a truck load of plants, we can’t test it right there on the side of the road to find out if it’s hemp or has a lower THC level,” he said. “We take it into custody, store it, have it tested. We have to pay for all that. And if it is below the THC level (of cannabis), we have to return it to its owner.”

Withrow also warned of some of the pitfalls commercial cannabis might bring to the county, including an increase in illegal grows.

He cited Calaveras County as an example. Calaveras County supervisors adopted an ordinance banning commercial cannabis grows in January 2018.

Commercial growers who successfully registered for permits under a 2016 ordinance allowing grows, and those whose applications were pending, had 90 days to comply with the ban.

But law enforcement agencies there have seized some 30,600 plants in 2019.

“The people who want to do this legally and get permits and want to start a business in this area will follow all the rules and do what’s needed and bring in some revenue,” Withrow said. “But along with that will come hundreds, if not thousands, of illegal grows.”

San Joaquin County supervisors on May 21 voted to allow commercial cannabis businesses in unincorporated areas of the county, and there are now about 20 applicants waiting to be approved.

Supervisors asked Withrow if he had encountered any illegal grows like Calaveras County had experienced. He said law enforcement agencies uncovered 58 homes several years ago in the Lathrop area that netted thousands of plants.

The Sheriff’s Office has received several calls from the farming community about greenhouses where suspected illegal grows are being conducted as well, he added.

However, he wasn’t trying to convince supervisors to reverse their May 21 decision, Withrow said.

“We’ll support whatever decision supervisors make, and we’ll make it work for the county,” he said. “I want all businesses, including our cannabis businesses, to be safe.”

Supervisor Tom Patti, who represents the county’s third district, suggested enacting a moratorium on cannabis Tuesday night until his colleagues could determine how to proceed with legalizing hemp.

“In light of the fact that hemp is a new element that’s far less nefarious ... and there are farmers interested in hemp that aren’t interested in cannabis, I would suggest a moratorium on our cannabis element until we factor in what we could be doing with hemp,” he said. “Which has, according to my understanding, a better, greater value and cheaper entry point for our local farmers and could benefit San Joaquin County as a less nefarious commodity.”

Local farmer Brad Ehlers said his family was interested in growing hemp to generate some extra income, and given the plant is used in 25,000 products throughout the world, it would be more beneficial than cannabis.

“Everyone knows California farming is tough right now, and now we’ve been given an opportunity to grow a life-changing commodity,” he said.

Supervisor Kathy Miller, who represents the county’s second district, was against placing another moratorium on cannabis, stating it was unfair to make comparisons to Calaveras County and the amount of illegal grows discovered there.

“Our approach could not be any more different then the approach Calaveras County took,” she said. “Calaveras County basically threw open the doors and said, ‘Come on in, we want everybody.’ And it was a free for all. Then (supervisors) started flipping back and forth.”

Supervisor Chuck Winn, who represents District 4, agreed that a moratorium should not be an option.

“One of the things I’ve found in the past when these things are sprung upon the board, is that the public — who may be very interested in weighing in on this — hasn’t been informed,” he said. “Therefore, I think it’s unfair for them not to have that opportunity before we make any decision.”

However, Deputy County Counsel Robert Flores said because Tuesday’s cannabis issue was a discussion item, supervisors could not take any action to impose a moratorium. They could, however, place a moratorium consideration on the same agenda in which they will discuss hemp, he said.

The supervisors are scheduled to meet July 23, Aug. 13 and 27, and Sept. 10 before the hemp moratorium comes to an end. Meetings start at 9 a.m. on the sixth floor of the San Joaquin County Administration Building, 44 N. San Joaquin St. in Stockton.

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