A temporary countywide moratorium prohibiting cultivation of industrial hemp passed the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors unanimously Tuesday afternoon in San Andreas.

The hemp moratorium is not to be confused with the board’s direction last month for county staff to revisit a regulatory ordinance for commercial cannabis.

County staff, including the county agriculture commissioner, recommended the moratorium to give the county time to assess impacts of hemp cultivation, regulations and fees. The ordinance approved by the board is exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act.

The board held a roughly 90-minute public hearing with public comments before they voted. Part of the county’s rationale for pushing for a moratorium on hemp cultivation is that there will be individuals who try to grow cannabis under the guise of hemp.

Kevin Wright, the county ag commissioner, tried to explain differences between hemp and cannabis.

“We have a plant that looks exactly the same as cannabis,” Wright said. “Our law officers, the sheriff, they will have a hard time distinguishing the difference. The only way is to test, and it can’t be tested until during the last month of its growth. We’ll have to take samples, send them a to a laboratory, see if the percentage is below .3 percent before it’s sold.”

A federal farm bill in 2018 decriminalized hemp at the federal level, Wright said. The state of California still needs to develop a baseline for regulation of state programs. That’s a year away, Wright said. California will have to conform to the federal standard.

The county’s cannabis ordinance banning commercial cultivation does not contemplate industrial hemp, which is defined differently under federal and state law, according to county ag division staff.

Ag staff recommended the moratorium on cultivation of industrial hemp at least until a cannabis regulation ordinance is in place, and acreage and zoning restrictions for cannabis cultivation are set.

“An industrial hemp ordinance might then be developed that mirrors the restrictions and limitations of cannabis cultivation but includes buffer zones to prevent cross-pollination,” county ag staff said in a report.

In the meantime, there is a risk of unlicensed cannabis being grown and disguised as hemp, which will shortly be legal to grow in California via a registration that requires no background check or other conduct-based vetting, county ag staff said.

Allowing local growers to register hemp cultivation sites would make it significantly more difficult for law enforcement and code compliance to enforce both the current cannabis ban and, without additional local regulations, any future cannabis regulatory ordinance, county ag staff said.

Ag research institutions in California are not defined as narrowly as they are by federal law, so that any organization that does ag research is considered a research institution, Wright told the board.

There’s a large window of people who might qualify, and there are instances in other countries where people are showing up with research organization certificates, and they want to grow hemp with greater than .3 percent THC -- tetrahydrocannabinol -- the psychoactive chemical that gets marijuana users high.

Cannabis and hemp present the same local challenges and will require similar regulation by the county even though they are regulated differently by the state and federal government, county ag staff said.

With hemp, water usage and other environmental impacts would be similar to cannabis and without acreage restrictions, making it even more problematic, county ag staff said.

Wright told the board he’s not against industrial hemp, but he’s against a premature program.

The county has old business that needs to be addressed, he said, referring to the ban and the possibility of a new ordinance regulating cannabis.

Some Calaveras County residents in favor of banning commercial cannabis spoke in favor of allowing hemp cultivation.

Trent Fiore, a pastor at a church in Mokelumne Hill who favors the ban on commercial cannabis activities in Calaveras County, said, “We should allow industrial hemp. It doesn’t have a black market. We’re trying to protect cannabis by banning hemp.”

Bill McManus, a pro-ban leader in Calaveras County, said people were talking about regulations but nobody was talking about enforcement. He said he is worried the county will rush into another ordinance for the industry the current board favors most, marijuana plants with THC.

Merita Callaway, the District 3 supervisor, said before the board voted she supports the moratorium on industrial hemp for now, but she hopes to have regulated cannabis and regulated hemp in Calaveras County sometime later this year.

Ben Stopper, supervisor for District 5, emphasized the moratorium on hemp cultivation would be temporary.

Gary Toffanelli, the District 1 supervisor, said the previous urgency ordinance that allowed commercial cannabis cultivation had too many loopholes, and not doing something about hemp cultivation would amount to allowing it without county oversight.

Hemp proponents say industrial hemp produces raw materials that can be used in thousands of products. Seeds and flowers are used in health foods and organic body care products. Fibers and stalks are used in hemp clothing, construction materials, paper, biofuel, plastic composites and other products.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.