Industrial hemp became a legal crop in North Carolina last year, but its quick legalization is prompting lawmakers to add more regulations before the first seeds are planted.
Advocates for the crop hope to start growing it early next year.
Hemp hadn’t been legal in part because the plant is a relative of marijuana and looks similar. But it lacks the active ingredient that makes marijuana a recreational drug. Hemp is used in fabrics, paper and car parts.
The legislature approved a legalization measure last year. The bill passed just days after it was introduced, attracting little notice in the busy final days of the session. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Jimmy Dixon, a Duplin County Republican, said he was “upset and perturbed” that the bill wasn’t reviewed by his committee first.
On Thursday, Dixon’s committee approved a bill that adds further regulations for aspiring hemp growers. The bill would add four more people to the five-member Industrial Hemp Commission charged with developing a permitting process for hemp farms. Three of the additional members would be agriculture professionals appointed by the state’s agriculture commissioner, currently Steve Troxler. The fourth would be a university professor appointed by the governor.
“We recognized from the very beginning that the commissioner of agriculture has an integral part in the implementation and establishment of this commission,” Dixon said. “When the commissioner of agriculture is satisfied, then Chairman Dixon is going to be satisfied.”
But Rep. Charles Graham, a Lumberton Democrat, said he wanted to see a member of the clergy added to the commission. He said he’s heard concerns from the religious community about the possibility that hemp production could result in marijuana production.
“I’m really concerned about the public perception and how this will be perceived,” Graham said.
The bill reviewed Thursday adds law enforcement to the hemp permitting process, requiring the new commission to notify the State Bureau of Investigation, sheriff’s departments and police about the location of all approved hemp farms. Those agencies would be allowed to inspect hemp operations at any time, and farmers would be required to maintain production records.
Still, Graham said he worries that a renegade hemp grower might try to illegally grow marijuana plants hidden in the center of a hemp field.
Rep. Larry Yarborough, a Roxboro Republican, assured Graham that anyone who tries that scheme would fail because the hemp would ruin marijuana plants.
If a marijuana plant “gets the pollen (from hemp) and goes to seed, it becomes worthless,” Yarborough said. “The THC goes away.”
The bill also requires N.C. State University and N.C. A&T University to oversee the hemp research program, which all licensed hemp growers would be required to join. Violations of the hemp regulations, including the placement of marijuana plants on hemp fields, would be Class 2 misdemeanors with fines of up to $2,500.
“This product hasn’t been really available in this country for about 70 years, and it’s a whole new field now,” said Rep. Mark Brody, a Monroe Republican and the bill sponsor. “We have an opportunity to be a leader, not only in production, but in the processing.”
A processing plant – currently handling a related plant called kenaf – has opened in Spring Hope, about 45 minutes east of Raleigh.
The N.C. Industrial Hemp Association, which has lobbied for hemp legalization, said it’s supportive of Brody’s bill. The group recently finished raising the $200,000 in private donations required to fund the state’s hemp commission. And it’s hosting its first Hemp Fest this weekend at a farm in Wallace to raise awareness for the crop.
“Any movement is good movement from where we stand,” said Jeff Cartonia, director of the hemp association.