'Hemp's the new gold rush': What happened when legal marijuana sent prices to rock-bottom

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A glut of legal marijuana has driven Oregon pot prices to rock-bottom levels, prompting some nervous growers to start pivoting to another type of cannabis to make ends meet — one that doesn't come with a high.

Applications for state licences to grow hemp — marijuana's non-intoxicating cousin — have increased more than twentyfold since 2015, and Oregon now ranks No 2 behind Colorado among the 19 states in America with active hemp cultivation.

The rapidly evolving market comes amid skyrocketing demand for a hemp-derived extract called cannabidiol, or CBD, seen by many as a health aid.

The two-story building where he grew 200 pounds of weed a month sits nearly empty, and a greenhouse built to expand his pot business is packed with hemp plants instead.

He breeds hemp plants genetically selected for their strong CBD concentration, harvests the seeds and extracts CBD from the remaining plants that can fetch up to US$13,000 per kilogram. His future looks bright again.

Trevor Eubanks, plant manager for Big Top Farms, readies a field for another hemp crop near Sisters, Oregon. Photo / AP

"The (marijuana) market is stuck within the borders of Oregon — it's locked within the state," he said, as he took a break from collecting tiny grains of pollen from his plants.

"But hemp is an international commodity now."

What is hemp?

Hemp is a crop that already has a foothold in states like Colorado and Kentucky and a lot of buzz in the cannabis industry.

In Oregon, the number of hemp licenses increased from 12 in 2015 to 353 as of last week, and the state now ranks No 2 nationally in licensed acreage.

Colorado, which is No 1 in hemp production, and Washington were the first states to broadly legalise marijuana.

Both have seen price drops for marijuana but not as significant as Oregon.

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Hemp is a crop that already has a foothold in states like Colorado and Kentucky and a lot of buzz in the cannabis industry. Photo / AP

Like marijuana, the hemp plant is a cannabis plant, but it contains less than 0.3 per cent of THC, the compound that gives pot its high.

Growing industrial hemp is legal under federal law, and the plant can be sold for use in things like fabric, food, seed and building materials.

How about CBD oil?

Julian Cabrera, factory manager at New Earth Biosciences, holds up a large glass beaker of golden-coloured, fully-refined CBD oil in Salem, Oregon. Photo / AP

But the increasing focus in Oregon is the gold-coloured CBD oil that has soared in popularity among cannabis connoisseurs and is rapidly going mainstream.

At least 50 per cent of hemp in the US is being grown for CBD extraction, and Oregon is riding the crest of that wave, said Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, a nonpartisan organisation that advocates for pro-hemp legislation.

"There are a lot of growers who already have experience growing cannabis, and when you're growing for CBD, there are a lot of the same techniques that you use for growing marijuana," he said.

"Oregon is definitely a hotbed of activity around this."

CBD is popping up in everything from cosmetics to chocolate bars to bottled water to pet treats.

One Los Angeles bar sells drinks containing the oil, massage therapists use creams containing CBD, and juice bars offer the stuff in smoothies.

Dozens of online sites sell endless iterations of CBD oils, tinctures, capsules, transdermal patches, infused chocolates and creams with no oversight.

Proponents say CBD offers a plethora of health benefits, from relieving pain to taming anxiety.

Scientists caution, however, that there have been very few comprehensive clinical studies of how CBD affects humans — mostly because the US Drug Enforcement Administration still considers cannabidiol a Schedule 1 drug, and the government requires special dispensation to study it.

Pre-clinical studies have shown promise for treatment of chronic pain, neuro-inflammation, anxiety, addiction and anti-psychotic effects in animals, mostly rodents, said Ziva Cooper, an associate professor of clinical neurobiology at Columbia University who focuses her research on the therapeutic potential of cannabis and cannabinoids.

The Federal Drug Administration next month could approve the first drug derived from CBD. It's used to treat forms of epilepsy.

Christina Sasser, co-founder of Vital Leaf, isn't waiting for government action to market CBD products in stores and online.

She sells about 500 bottles of Oregon-sourced CBD oil a month and ships only to customers living in states with state-run hemp pilot programs, to better avoid the possibility that federal agents will go after her for selling something the US government considers illicit.

"Everybody in the CBD world has recognised the risks involved, and I would say the vast majority of us really believe in the power of the plant and are willing to operate in this, sort of, gray area."

Products containing cannabidiol, or CBD, on display at Unique Food Works, a state-licensed hemp handling facility in Salem, Oregon. Photo / AP

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