September 16, 2019 at 9:00 am

Smokable hemp fight continues at General Assembly

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Raleigh, N.C. — Smokable hemp continues to divide the North Carolina legislature as law enforcement and a burgeoning industry clash over whether, and when, to ban the state‘s newfangled cash crop.

The back and forth produced a quasi-compromise Tuesday: Smokable hemp, legal right now and, according to some farmers, key to hemp industry profits, would be banned in North Carolina come May 1, 2020.

In the mean time, law enforcement would look for field tests to distinguish between hemp buds, which don‘t have enough THC to get people high, and marijuana, which does.

Even with a test, law enforcement officials say they‘ll have probable cause problems field testing marijuana, since it looks and smells like hemp bud. They‘ve said legal smokable hemp essentially legalizes marijuana, not only making those laws unenforceable but endangering bigger busts that start with the smell of marijuana smoke.

A similar issue has cropped up in Texas, where hemp laws have prosecutors tossing some marijuana cases this year and holding off on charging others.

There are rounds yet to fight as this long-debated bill moves to the House floor, then back to the Senate, where a key legislator on agricultural issues prefers a longer reprieve for the hemp buds. The difference at the moment is only 31 days, but it may remain a sticking point.

There‘s more than a single industry at stake. The hemp sections of Senate Bill 315 are part of a wide-ranging Farm Act that affects the hog industry, sweet potato farmers and people in rural counties concerned that shooting ranges are about to get an exemption from county zoning laws.

“We‘re running a big risk of walking away … without a farm bill,” Rep. William Brisson, R-Bladen, said during a Tuesday committee meeting.

If nothing passes, smokable hemp stays legal in North Carolina.

The state‘s push to establish a hemp industry, producing rope, clothing and CBD oils with medicinal value, led to this point. As the industry grew, smokable hemp became a profit center that policymakers hadn‘t expected.

Among other things, it‘s a delivery method for CBD, and shops have popped up around the state selling hemp cigarettes alongside oils, lotions and other CBD products.

Michael Sims, co-owner of a CBD company in Charlotte, told legislators Tuesday that smokable hemp is just over half of his business. He said he has 52 employees, and he begged lawmakers not to upend his business model.

“It‘s helping people,” he said. “Nobody‘s dying. Jobs are being created. Why are we fighting this?”

Brunswick County Sheriff John Ingram, speaking for the North Carolina Sheriffs‘ Association, said his office recently arrested someone with a large amount of heroin because of a search that started with a vehicle stop and the smell of marijuana. He said a random school parking lot sweep yielded marijuana and “several weapons,” heading off an attack “that was getting ready to happen at that school.”

If smokable hemp remains legal, “800 police K-9‘s in the state would be rendered useless,” said Roxboro Police Chief David Hess, vice president of the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police.

But treating hemp buds like marijuana stigmatizes not just the flowers that look like pot, but other parts of the plant as well, farmers said.

Fen Rascoe, a farmer on the state‘s Industrial Hemp Commission, said the state classifying the buds as marijuana makes it difficult to get crop insurance and will run people out of the business.

Brian Bullman, the founder of Asheville‘s Carolina Hemp Company, said the legislature is essentially “banning a scent” and that other hemp products smell just like marijuana, too.

Because the bill contains some 14 pages of hemp regulations beyond the smokable ban, there was at least one call from within the industry to pass the bill despite the ban.

Hemp Magik founder Melissa Clark has been sounding the alarm at the General Assembly on potential problems with North Carolina crops, and she argued Tuesday that the state needs more testing for heavy metals, pesticides and mold.

“Right now, there‘s no control, but a ton of businesses,” she said.

Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, pushed for the ban starting May 1, 2020, a compromise position after his efforts to ban smokable hemp as of this December. Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, said he could support a ban starting June 1, 2020. He said that gives farmers more time to sell this year‘s still-legal crop.

Dixon‘s position lost a voice vote in the House Rules committee Tuesday, with the chairman deciding his amendment failed based on loudness of ayes and nos from committee members. But Dixon called for a show of hands, and when those went up, he‘d won by two votes.

“The longer we go without an official ban for smokable hemp, the more jeopardy we‘re in relative to the dismissal of cases,” Dixon said.

“I feel like we need this June 1 date,” Jackson said.

In addition to the hemp language, Senate Bill 315 touches on several other farming issues, and some of the language is controversial.

One section adds shooting sports to the state‘s definition of agritourism, preventing local governments from using zoning rules to keep shooting ranges and skeet shooting businesses from starting up on farms. The language has concerned neighbors, including in Harnett County, where a lawsuit on the issue went all the way to the state Supreme Court.

The latest version of the bill limits the definition change to counties with populations of less than 110,000.

The bill also has language limiting the records local soil and water commission offices could release under the state‘s public records act and tinkering with rules for hog farms that want to install new technology. Both measures have drawn concern from environmental groups that push back against the state‘s hog industry.

There‘s also language in the bill launching a new sweet potato branding campaign in North Carolina similar to Georgia‘s Vidalia onion program.

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