SALEM — Bills that aimed to bring industrial hemp into the mainstream of Oregon agriculture have died despite lacking strong opposition or a hefty price tag.
Hemp seed could be tested for purity by Oregon State University under House Bill 2371, which would also have brought the crop under an official OSU research pilot program.
A new industrial hemp commission devoted to raising funds for research and promotion would have been created under House Bill 2372, similarly to several other Oregon agricultural products.
Both proposals unanimously passed the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee in April but then languished in the Joint Ways and Means Committee until the end of the 2017 legislative session.
"It's the biggest mystery I've ever bumped into in this building," said Rep. Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, the bills' chief sponsor.
The work of the Oregon Industrial Hemp Commission would have been paid by grower assessments, while the research and seed testing program would have "minimal impact" on OSU and an "indeterminate" cost for the Oregon Department of Agriculture, which could charge fees to hemp farmers.
"There was zero opposition and some pretty substantial reasons why they should pass," said Matt Cyrus, a hemp grower from Deschutes County who lobbied for the legislation.
Oregon's hemp industry finds itself in a "slight gray area" under federal law, but HB 2371 would have brought OSU research activities into alignment with federal language in the 2014 Farm Bill, which allows some hemp production, he said.
"It was more of a technical housekeeping bill," Cyrus said. "It was a fairly important bill for the industry."
Without the proposal's approval, OSU will be constrained in communications and advice to hemp growers, said Jay Noller, head of the university's crop and soil science department.
The university can still conduct research without the bill, but it's not permitted to provide Extension services to hemp producers, he said.
"We're kind of hamstrung here," Noller said.
If HB 2371 had passed, ODA-registered hemp producers would have automatically become OSU research program participants, giving OSU greater leeway to work with them under federal law, he said.
"It means we'll be waiting until things get cleaned up," Noller said.
When asked about the hemp bills' failure, the co-chair of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, said that fewer than "one-in-three bills were able to move through the committee and pass both chambers, due to time constraints and other factors."
Wilson, the bills' chief sponsor, said he met with leaders of the Ways and Means Committee, as well as Gov. Kate Brown, to explain the significance of the legislation.
"I am absolutely stunned by this development," Wilson said. "Everybody in this place knew what this was about and what it would do. I can't figure out who the enemy was."
While the industrial hemp commission would have been "nice to have," the statutory language changes in HB 2371 are imperative to bring Oregon's hemp industry in line with federal requirements, he said.
Wilson said he never received any feedback about why the latter bill shouldn't be passed and plans to re-introduce it in 2018.
"I plan to bring this one back," he said.
Courtney Moran, attorney and lobbyist for the Oregon Industrial Hemp Farmers Association, said she was equally mystified by the bills' demise.
Members of a natural resources subcommittee of the Joint Ways and Means Committee expected to consider the bill, and leaders of the full committee said they expected it to be reviewed, Moran said.
"We did everything we possibly could, I feel," she said. "We're disappointed in the failure of the co-chairs to recognize the importance of the bills."