Politics & Government

NC House votes for ban on smokable hemp, reacting to police concern over pot arrests

Smokable hemp could be banned in North Carolina starting May 1, 2020 — worrying farmers and business people, but supported by several law enforcement agencies.

In the meantime, even though it is legal, that kind of hemp could also be used as probable cause for police to arrest and search someone.

The North Carolina Farm Act passed the House on Wednesday after hours of debate, and will be sent to the Senate. The bill would revise the definition of hemp — which is legal to grow, with a license — to exclude smokable hemp.

Among other things, the bill would also allow shooting ranges on some farms to be considered agritourism.

Lawmakers disagreed on whether banning it would make smokable hemp a controlled substance like marijuana. But associating it with marijuana would hurt farmers, making it harder to compete with farms in other states and destroying their chance of getting crop insurance, said Fen Rascoe, hemp farmer, told House members when it was heard in the House rules committee on Tuesday.

Rascoe, who is also on the N.C. Industrial Hemp Commission, said farmers find the reclassification of smokable hemp offensive.

“Take the marijuana out of it; it’s not marijuana,” he said.

Unlike marijuana, smoking hemp does not give users a high, because it does not include the high levels of the THC chemical that marijuana does.

Hemp and marijuana

Roxboro Police Chief David Hess said when the industrial hemp pilot program began, smokable hemp was not discussed. He wants the ban soon.

He said that smokable hemp is indistinguishable from marijuana in appearance and odor, meaning law enforcement wouldn’t be able to seize suspected marijuana because the argument could be made that it is legal hemp. Hess is also first vice president of the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police.

“As long as smokable hemp is legal in North Carolina, marijuana enforcement is crippled, effectively legalizing marijuana,” Hess said.

James Banks, a Western North Carolina district attorney representing the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, said the group’s position is that allowing smokable hemp is “de facto” marijuana legalization.

Rep. Jimmy Dixon said the May 1 date in the latest version of Senate Bill 315 was a compromise between the House’s plan for Dec. 1, 2019, and the Senate’s plan for Dec. 1, 2020. Dixon, a Warsaw Republican, said state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler told him the date was fine with him. In 2021, assuming the Farm Act passes, regulation of hemp will be transferred from the N.C. Hemp Commission to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Dixon, the bill’s sponsor, said whether or not smokable hemp is a controlled substance would be resolved in the court system.

Marijuana and probable cause

House members debated whether or not smokable hemp is “de facto marijuana legalization” on the floor Wednesday. They passed an amendment that would let police use probable cause to arrest and search someone for suspected marijuana, and even it if was tested later and determined to be hemp, use evidence found through that search for other charges.

At least two Republicans argued that the amendment, proposed by Rep. Joe John, a Wake County Democrat, would violate the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and raises issues of property rights and liberty.

“People have the right to privacy and security,” said Rep. Keith Kidwell, a Chocowinity Republican, arguing the amendment was unconstitutional.

However, the amendment passed. An amendment to drop the hemp ban from the Farm Act failed.

Rep. Kelly Alexander, a Charlotte Democrat, argued lawmakers should get “out of the business of attempting to outlaw something that is federally legal. Let me say that again. Hemp, smokable hemp, is federally legal. There is no way we will be able to sustain something that is federally legal,” he said.

Alexander said that with the issue starting to wind its way through federal courts, lawmakers should “go ahead and recognize which way the the train is moving” and allow what he called a positive economic benefit to farmers.

House Deputy Majority Whip Pat McElraft, an Emerald Isle Republican, said that when the General Assembly agreed to start the industrial hemp commission, it was talking about hemp products like rope and soap.

“Our farmers should never have been given the bill of sell, s-e-l-l, for smokable hemp,” McElraft said.

Hemp business

Michael Sims, co-owner of Charlotte CBD, which sells the compound derived from hemp known as CBD, told lawmakers Tuesday that this is his life, not just a hobby or to make money.

“One thing we need to realize is these drug dogs alert to all of these products,” he said. “All products made from hemp can also be made from marijuana.”

“It’s helping people, nobody’s dying, jobs are being created — why are we doing this?” Sims asked.

Brian Bullman, founder of Carolina Hemp Company, said banning smokable hemp would cause complications, and compared it to banning a smell, since it smells like marijuana.

“Anything that happens in this state without significant foresight is going to continue to ripple through our economy, our hemp economy,” Bullman said.

Shooting as agritourism

The Farm Act would also let farmers use their land for shooting sports, but only in counties with populations of 110,000 or less.

The only public comment on the Farm Act Tuesday regarding shooting as agritourism was from Harnett County tree farmer Kent Jeffries, who opposes it.

Jeffries said allowing shooting on farms without a process for county regulation would make it “open season.”

“Any farmer, any bona fide farmer, can put a tin can on a fence post next to your child’s daycare ... and call it a shooting range,” he said.

On the House floor Wednesday, Rep. Julia Howard, a Mocksville Republican, tried to pass an amendment that would give county commissioners the final say on shooting ranges on farms, but that failed.

Now that the revised Farm Act has passed the House, the Senate, which has approved a version of the bill, would have to sign off again before it would go to Gov. Roy Cooper.

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.