On Oct. 31, the Sheriff’s Office in Kern County, California, a stretch of mostly unincorporated farmland in the state’s mostly conservative heartland, laid claim to one of the biggest marijuana busts in recorded history, if not the very biggest.
A few days before, as the Bakersfield Californian first reported, sheriff’s deputies working with state Fish and Wildlife and the FBI visited several plots of what was supposed to be industrial hemp grown on 459 acres near the city of Arvin, a small part of 7,000 acres of hemp under cultivation in Kern County.
Hemp is bigger business than ever in America thanks to the CBD craze, but has also caused regular confusion among law enforcement and the general public. You will remember that industrial hemp and dispensary-grade cannabis are both cannabis sativa. Under U.S. law, hemp becomes “marijuana” if it tests at 0.3% or more of THC and anyone wishing to grow industrial hemp legally must regularly test their crop and cut it all down if tests come back “hot” with too much THC.
In this case, the hemp near Arvin — more than 10 million plants’ worth, according to the sheriff’s office — had tested as high as 7% THC, as the Californian reported.
“Preliminary testing showed the levels of THC in these fields were well over the legal limit for industrial hemp production and were in fact cannabis,” the Kern County Sheriff’s Office wrote in a Facebook post.
Before deputies “seized and eradicated” the offending plants, they had an “estimated value of over $1 billion on the black market,” the office claimed.
The Kern County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to inquiries from Cannabis Now and has not offered any updates in the case since the Oct. 31 Facebook post.
It’s not clear if any arrests were made nor if anyone is being investigated for attempting to grow a massive amount of smokable, THC-rich cannabis under the protections of the Farm Bill.
It’s also not clear how authorities arrived at the “$1 billion” estimate, beyond assuming each of the 10 million plants was worth $100 each on some underground market.
What is clear, according to hemp experts and publicly available information reviewed by Cannabis Now, is that the KSCO either has no idea what it’s talking about or is full of it.
Either way, nobody in Kern County busted $1 billion worth of weed.
“I’m extremely skeptical this is marijuana,” said Lawrence Serbin, former chair of the California state Industrial Hemp Advisory Board and principal of Hemp Traders, which the Orange County Register said could be the “country’s largest importer of hemp products.”
Helpfully, Kern County posted aerial photos of the bust. The plants are packed tightly together, with limited room to grow. They don’t look like the bushy plants grown from flower in greenhouses or hoophouses on Emerald Triangle hilltops: They look like, well, ditchweed.
“That looks like hemp,” Serbin told Cannabis Now. “The way it’s being grown, so close together, it looks like it’s being grown for fiber.”
Hemp like that is lucky to have 5% or less of THC — nothing anyone but the most desperate would consider smoking. True, these days, “hemp” is appearing in smoke shops and corner stores with presentation and packaging like the THC cannabis in dispensaries, but at least in photos, this hemp doesn’t look like that kind of hemp, either, Serbin said.
“This does not look like smokable hemp,” he added. “This looks like an industrial hemp field to me.”
It’s entirely possible the sheriffs did cut down 10 million plants. You can grow a lot more hemp than that on 459 acres: According to researchers at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, if you’re growing hemp for fiber production, optimal density is about 300,000 plants per acre. If you’re growing something other than rope, the density is 150,000 plants per acre.
But that’s the problem — that’s hemp grown for fuel or fiber, not to be extracted into CBD oil. If someone wanted to hide underground-market cannabis in the hemp field, they could do that, but it wouldn’t fetch the same kind of prices cannabis grown under controlled conditions would.
And $1 billion? There’s just no way.
According to Serbin, you can milk about 1.6 ounces of CBD oil per pound of hemp flower. And if you grow 1 plant per square meter, you can get about a pound of flower per plant, he added. And CBD hemp is fetching a high price these days: “$20 to $60 a pound, with a high concentration of CBD in it,” Serbin said.
Assuming the highest possible yield and the highest possible value, 10 million plants on 459 acres might yield you $100 million worth or so of CBD oil, but even that figure, based on the most generous assumptions, is far less than the cops’ claim.
If Kern County overestimated the bust willfully, it’s just doing what cops have always done. “I’ve noticed law enforcement does have a tendency to overstate the value of any bust as it makes them look good,” Serbin said.
But in the hemp era, cops have also proven overzealous to a fault in pursuing hemp crops, using the excuse “we thought it was weed” if anything goes sideways. Shipments of hemp sent across the country have been seized and the drivers arrested because cops were convinced the hemp was marijuana.
That’s not good for a variety of reasons. With the legalization of THC-rich cannabis favored by a majority of Americans, using police resources to cut down stands of rope is not going to be popular. Doing that diverts cops from pursuing other crimes such as violent crimes against people. And it also discourages investors and entrepreneurs from jumping into legal hemp cultivation. You’re forced to wonder if that’s partially the point.
TELL US, do you think the sheriff’s department flubbed on the numbers?