For several weeks, a neighbor’s skunky smell filled the air, and students at Oak Grove Elementary complained that their heads hurt and they felt nauseated.
Staff, too, were not pleased. They said the odor followed them to their vehicles and homes.
From September through October, people at Oak Grove said, they were constantly aware that their neighbors were hemp farms ready for harvest.
“Many staff, students and families have significant concerns about noxious odor during the harvest season and its impact on the health of the students and the staff,” said Michelle Cummings, Medford School District chief academic officer.
Hemp plants, cousins to marijuana, often release strong smells as their flavor-producing terpenes reach maturity. The scent of even a few rows of plants can travel far, and Oak Grove is within a quarter-mile of at least two industrial hemp grows.
Oregon law requires industrial hemp to be at or below 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive molecule in marijuana, so whether it’s smoked or incorporated into comestibles, any kind of high is next to impossible — even more so when it comes to plants growing in the field.
In 2016, a senior policy analyst with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality told the Eugene Register-Guard that while the department was getting plenty of pot-related complaints about fumes, it wouldn’t regulate smells because they are not considered toxic.
Hemp farming is popular in Jackson County: more licenses to grow the crop were issued here last year than in any other Oregon county. Processed hemp can be used for medicinal, textile and cooking purposes.
The hemp farms flanking Oak Grove are on county land owned by several family trusts, according to county property records; the western edge of Oak Grove’s property serves as Medford’s city limit, so school officials asked county commissioners to get involved.
Commissioners Rick Dyer and Bob Strosser visited the school, Dyer said.
The smells weren’t quite as prominent that day, he said. But in classrooms directly adjacent to the property, hemp plants — often difficult to distinguish from marijuana plants in sight and smell — could clearly be seen.
“People have what I think are legitimate concerns,” Dyer said.
But there’s little the county can do about the hemp operations’ proximity to the school, he said. Hemp is an agricultural crop, and is therefore regulated by the state.
Marijuana, in contrast, is subject to the county’s discretion regarding time, place and manner.
The land in question is zoned as exclusive farm use, which protects all kinds of agricultural operations, Dyer said.
“If it was a pig farm, it would be protected the same way that a hemp operation is,” he said. “I don’t think people have quite acclimated to it yet.”
He connected Oak Grove officials with someone he thought might be able to help: state Sen. Alan DeBoer, whose term representing District 3 will end in January.
DeBoer said he doesn’t think there’s much for the state to do about the hemp farms being there, but he is looking into options for air scrubbers to help staff and students breathe easier during the harvest weeks.
“That to me seems to be the simplest and easiest solution,” he said.
He said the school district might be able to receive funding through the state Emergency Board if it applies for help and demonstrates its need.
DeBoer said the situation at Oak Grove highlights a lack of preparedness for dealing with the impacts of hemp being regulated as a crop.
“We weren’t ready for it as quickly as it came,” he said.
Cummings said that air scrubbers might be a potential solution but indicated the district might be open to advocating for other actions at the state level going forward.
“I’m going to say that’s a possibility,” she said, “but the more long-term response for the health of the children of the state of Oregon may be to consider some of these procedures, given what we now know of the impact of a hemp grow next to a school.”