Politics & Government

Some NC lawmakers want to ban smokable hemp. It looks too much like marijuana, they say.

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Now that farmers can grow industrial hemp, how well do you know your cannabis?

An effort to expand the hemp industry in North Carolina has turned two of the state’s most powerful lobbying forces against each other: farmers and law enforcement.

The tension has created a feud among Republican state lawmakers, leaving the future of smokable hemp uncertain.

The Farm Act of 2019, a Senate bill that aimed to expand and regulate hemp farming in North Carolina, has been stalled after law enforcement officials voiced concern that further legitimizing smokable hemp would impede their ability to enforce existing marijuana laws.

Hemp looks and smells like marijuana, but can’t get users high because it has only amount of the chemical THC. There’s a demand for hemp and cannabidiol oil, made from hemp and also known as CBD, as a treatment for epilepsy and chronic pain.

A pilot program launched in 2015 enabled the farming of smokable hemp. Then, last year, President Donald Trump signed a bill that reclassified hemp as an agricultural commodity, rather than a controlled substance, paving the way for people who might want to invest in the business.

But state House Republicans have now changed two bills — the Farm Act, aka Senate Bill 315, and SB 352 — to ban smokable hemp flower as soon as this December. North Carolina would become the sixth state — in addition to Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana, Louisiana and Texas — to ban smokable hemp, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to review the farm bill during a 10 a.m. meeting on Wednesday. With that in mind, the NC Industrial Hemp Commission on Tuesday held an emergency meeting and passed a resolution calling on the legislature to keep smokable hemp legal.

Selling the smokable flower is typically more lucrative than selling the oil, according to Keith Edmisten, a cotton and hemp specialist at N.C. State University. Farmers can make up to $40 per pound selling hemp for oil, while they can get about the same for “3.5 grams” of the hemp flower, he told the News & Observer in an email.

So some farmers have already invested in hemp and new equipment since North Carolina loosened hemp laws in 2015.

“We cannot pull the rug out from under our farmers at this time,” Pat Short, a farmer and commission member, said during Tuesday’s meeting. “If they’re in the middle of a crop, they’ve made huge investments and have to support them.”

Fen Rascoe, another farmer and commission member, said the proposed bans would deter banks and insurance companies from helping hemp farmers.

“This is the most anti-farmer legislation in the General Assembly in 100 years. Nobody has thought about the North Carolina farmer,” he said.

The commission’s two law enforcement officers — Martin County Sheriff Tim Manning and Tony Godwin, Cary’s police chief — voted against the resolution. Godwin said he fears acceptance of smokable hemp will lead to legalization of marijuana, while Manning suggested without evidence that hemp is a gateway drug.

“None of you want your children to get hooked on other drugs,” Manning said.

Guy Carpenter, a commissioner who uses hemp to make Cape Fear Apparel, pushed back at both suggestions. He compared hemp to non-alcoholic beers, saying the police can test beer lookalikes if they’re confused.

“Drinking root beer does not lead you to drinking beer,” Carpenter said. “I’m tired of North Carolina being the circus state and having ridiculous laws.”

HOW IT STARTED

Republican NC Sen. Brent Jackson, a farmer from Sampson County, introduced the Farm Act to establish regulations for the industry and open a new revenue stream for farmers who might be hurting from recent tariffs or natural disasters.

Smokable hemp is different from marijuana and cannot get you high, but the two products can look and smell almost identical. That’s why the NC Sheriffs’ Association, State Bureau of Investigation and NC Conference of District Attorneys said they believe legalization of smokable hemp would “make it extremely difficult for law enforcement officers to enforce current laws and district attorneys to prosecute individuals for violations of the law against marijuana.”

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, a Democrat, was among several law enforcement officers to oppose smokable hemp during a legislative committee meeting.

“[N]ot only would it become very difficult for law enforcement to enforce existing marijuana laws, but other investigation and interdiction efforts currently initiated based on the use of marijuana would be significantly undermined,” Freeman said.

PROPOSED COMPROMISE

In response, the Senate approved what Jackson considers a compromise: ban smokable hemp starting in December 2020. That date would allow farmers to capitalize on their current hemp crop while lawmakers searched for a method to help cops distinguish between hemp flower and marijuana.

Jackson said he’s not aware of a field test that has been verified to test at exactly the 0.3% federal THC limit, but that cost-effective tests do exist and are used in Europe to identify more than 1% THC.

“It would not be impossible for a test that is applicable here to come about by the end of this year or next for just a few dollars,” Jackson told the N&O. “If a test can be refined, it would probably not cost more than a few dollars if it used simple chemistry that mirrors the European field testing methods.”

PUSHBACK

That wasn’t good enough for Republican NC Rep. Jimmy Dixon of Duplin County, who is leading efforts to classify smokable hemp as a controlled substance. Led by Dixon, House Republicans in committee amended the Farm Act to ban smokable hemp starting Dec. 1.

On Wednesday the Judiciary Committee will consider a proposal that restores the Senate version and the 2020 ban.

Not only did House Republicans change the Farm Act, they classified smokable hemp as marijuana in another bill known as the “Amend NC Controlled Substances Act.”

Dixon explained his position in a July 20 Facebook post, where he suggested the pilot program allowing smokable hemp put the “cart before the horse.” He said he won’t support smokable hemp until an affordable field test is endorsed by law enforcement.

“I will not support consumption of smokable hemp in North Carolina because that will provide a (gaping) loop hole for folks to smoke marijuana, which is currently illegal,” he said. To emphasize what he saw as the nefarious nature of the hemp pilot program, Dixon said it became final “on halloween!!!”

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Paul “Andy” Specht reports on North Carolina leaders and state politics for The News & Observer and PolitiFact. Specht previously covered Raleigh City Hall and town governments around the Triangle. He’s a Raleigh native who graduated from Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C. Contact him at aspecht@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4870.
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