Ashvegas Hemp sheet
Ashvegas Hemp Sheet

The fight over smokeable hemp continues in Raleigh. Let’s review how we got here, and what’s next:

-The North Carolina Farm Act: Senate Bill 315, also known as the North Carolina Farm Act, was introduced during this year’s session of the North Carolina General Assembly. The bill includes provisions regarding hog waste lagoons and a couple of other issues, but it’s main purpose was to provide a state regulatory framework for industrial hemp businesses. In December 2018, federal legislation legalized the growing of industrial hemp, defined as cannabis plants that have 0.3 percent THC or less by dry weight. THC is the compound that gives cannabis plants their psychoactive properties.

-The rush to get into the business: Since the federal legislation was approved, farmers have rushed to get permits to grow industrial hemp around Western North Carolina, and across the state, while hemp dispensaries offering an array of products for sale have popped up. There are about 1,300 permitted industrial hemp growers in North Carolina, according to Blake Butler, executive director of the N.C. Industrial Hemp Association. Investment is pouring into the state (growing industrial hemp in greenhouses is popular) and makes North Carolina’s hemp industry rank in the top five among states.

-All about CBD: Industrial hemp, which was once attractive for its fiber to make products like rope, is now coveted for the compound CBD, which has been shown to have some health benefits. (Last year, the FDA approved a drug that contains a purified drug substance, CBD, derived from marijuana for the treatment of epilepsy.)

-Hemp flower power: Industrial hemp flower looks and smells just like marijuana, but doesn’t give a user the high that marijuana. It is sold in hemp dispensaries in jars of raw buds called “flower,” and as hemp cigarettes known as “pre-rolls.” Farmers say the sale of the raw hemp flower is key to their business, as do the hemp dispensary retailers. Sale of the flower is 20 to 30 percent of their business, they say.

-Police concerned: But industrial hemp’s similarity to marijuana has become an issue for law enforcement officials. The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation issued a memo to state lawmakers earlier this year as they began consideration of the N.C. Farm Act, asking them to ban the raw industrial hemp flower, also known as smokeable hemp. In the memo, law enforcement officials say they can’t tell the difference between industrial hemp and marijuana in the field, and they want it banned.

-The real issue with police: Law enforcement officials aren’t just worried about confusion when it comes to enforcing marijuana laws. Their real issue is that they’re worried they could lose probable cause for searches based on the smell of marijuana.

-The legislative players: Enter the legislative players. N.C. Sen. Brent Jackson of Sampson County is the key sponsor of Senate Bill 315 (the N.C. Farm Act) and a friend to the industrial hemp concerns. N.C. Rep. Jimmy Dixon of Duplin County has championed law enforcement’s concerns and opposes industrial hemp. Both are Republicans. Both have farming backgrounds.

-Legislative maneuvering: Dixon wants the N.C. Farm Act to ban the sale of smokeable hemp starting in December of this year. The industrial hemp lobby asked for the ban to moved to December 2020 to allow time for law enforcement officials to adopt a reliable field test to determine the difference between hemp and marijuana. Dixon apparently doesn’t think much of that idea, because he offered changes to Senate Bill 352, the N.C. Controlled Substances Act, to treat industrial hemp the same as marijuana. Hemp advocates say such a move isn’t tenable because industrial hemp is legal under federal law.

-What about a field test: The federal Drug Enforcement Agency is apparently working on a short list of vendors who have developed a reliable roadside test to tell the difference between hemp and marijuana, according to Butler. The N.C. SBI would look at that list and determine which that state law enforcement would work with. “The next question is, who is going to pay for it?”

-Other compromises: Blake Butler of the N.C. Industrial Hemp Association says his group has offered a couple of other compromises. One is what’s referred to as an “open container” law that make it illegal to use smokeable hemp in public or in your car, similar to the open container law for alcohol. “It gives back probable cause to an officer in the field,” Butler says. Another idea is to make it law that smokeable hemp must remain in sealed, legally compliant packaging, and if that seal is broken in public or in a car, a person is open to a probably cause search. The bottom line, says Butler, is that “we’re sympathetic to law enforcement’s concerns.”

-What’s next: The week of July 22, Senate Bill 315 (Farm Act) goes to the N.C. House Judiciary Committee and, if passed there, on to the full House for a vote. If it passes there, it must go back to the N.C. Senate for agreement on all changes. In the N.C. Senate, Senate Bill 352 (Controlled Substances Act) must go to a House committee and then to the House floor for a vote, and if it passes there, on to the Senate for agreement on all changes. The pro-hemp Sen. Jackson has the upper-hand, legislatively speaking, here. After this week, legislators will go home for an August recess.

-Planning for contingencies: Butler says “I think the only way the N.C. Farm Act can pass is if they move all the hemp provisions.” If the Controlled Substances Act ends up treating hemp the same as marijuana, “we will probably have to take legal action,” he adds. No matter what happens, hemp advocates should “call your representative or senator and tell them that Jimmy Dixon is trying to hurt the hemp industry, and we’re not going to stand by and let it happen,” Butler says. “We need hemp in North Carolina.” It’s a viable crop for small farmers, he stresses.

-What if the N.C. Farm Act fails: If North Carolina lawmakers do not pass the N.C. Farm Act, business will continue as it is now, Butler says.

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