Some NC lawmakers want hemp classified as marijuana, farmers push back — UPDATED

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By Taylor Knopf

Update 7/24/19: Despite objections from law enforcement representatives on Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee passed the NC Senate’s version of the Farm Act, which does not classify hemp as marijuana. Instead, the bill includes a ban on raw hemp flower or “smokable” hemp which would go into effect at the end of 2020.

Bill sponsor Sen. Brent Jackson said this will give farmers the ability to reap the profits of this year’s crop. During that same time, the Department of Agriculture and law enforcement will work together on the marijuana law enforcement issues.

Representatives from the NC Sheriffs’ Association, NC Association of Chiefs of Police and the NC Conference of District Attorneys objected to these changes during the committee’s public comment period and asked for a ban on smokable hemp by the end of this year. The House Rules Committee will hear the Farm Act next.

Some N.C. lawmakers want to classify hemp — a newly legalized crop — as marijuana because law enforcement officers say they can’t tell the difference between the two.

Meanwhile, farmers who are suffering from plummeting commodity prices and hurricane losses say they are finally reaping some real profits from growing hemp.

The two forces are butting heads at the state legislature as law enforcement seeks to ban raw hemp flower or “smokable hemp.” Farmers claim that no insurance company or lending institution will touch a farmer who’s growing a crop considered a controlled substance in North Carolina.

Farmers across the state have been growing hemp through a state pilot program since 2015. Last December, all forms of hemp became legal when President Donald Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill.

Hemp versus marijuana:

The major difference between hemp and marijuana is the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the hallucinogenic compound that leaves users with a high. Unlike its cousin marijuana, legal hemp plants must contain no more than 0.3 percent of THC. The demand for hemp products is driven by the plant’s cannabidiol (CBD) content, which consumers use for a myriad of medicinal purposes, from insomnia to reducing inflammation.

This legislative session, North Carolina lawmakers introduced some regulations for the newly legalized industry in the NC Farm Act of 2019. That’s when law enforcement officers, district attorneys and State Bureau of Investigation representatives appeared, voicing their concerns.

Hemp plants look and smell the same as marijuana plants, despite chemical differences that make the two substances different. With legalized hemp, the law enforcement community claims they can no longer enforce marijuana laws.

Lawmakers have been looking for ways to appease both farmers and law enforcement. But agricultural leaders in the House and Senate have differing opinions on how to move forward, which has resulted in long, contentious committee debates.

The Farm Act will be debated during the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

Sen. Brent Jackson (R-Autryville), a farmer, sponsored the bill in the Senate. Under his direction, senators amended the Farm Act to ban hemp flower starting December 2020.

Meanwhile, he is working with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to find a field testing mechanism for law enforcement that would allow officers to quickly detect the amount of THC in a substance to determine whether it’s hemp or marijuana.

In the House, Rep. Jimmy Dixon (R-Warsaw) urged his colleagues to move up the ban to the end of this year at the recommendation of law enforcement. He also led his colleagues to alter the Amend NC Controlled Substances Act to classify raw hemp as marijuana.

Jackson’s legislative assistant said that right now, the senator cannot support the changes made in the House to either bill.

Roadside testing for THC

The Department of Agriculture is actively vetting different field tests which law enforcement officers could carry in their vehicles to determine whether a substance is within legal levels of THC.

At the moment, they are vetting the CBD QuickTest, which is manufactured by Elixir Health Products Limited in the UK. It was developed by the Swiss in 2017 after their police force had a similar issue differentiating between hemp and marijuana, the latter of which is illegal in Switzerland.

The NC Department of Agriculture is vetting a test that would determine the amount of THC in a substance. Screenshot courtesy of CBD QuickTest

The test is comprised of a small plastic pouch and some chemicals that turn red if the sample has less than 1 percent THC. It turns blue if the sample is over that amount. The manufacturer claims it’s a low-cost, easy to use test that’s being used by police in Switzerland, Germany, Luxembourg and Austria.

Other states have been looking into this same test.

Knowing that the Department of Agriculture is working on a solution hasn’t stopped the NC Sheriff’s Association and others from insisting on a ban of the hemp flower.

Eddie Caldwell, general counsel of the NC Sheriffs’ Association told the House Agriculture Committee last month that sheriffs support farmers, but that “this bill creates major public safety concerns.”

There are no validated field tests, he argued. Caldwell acknowledged that the NCDACS staff were looking for a test, but said it seems “speculative at this point.”

He noted that drug detection dogs also cannot tell the difference between hemp and marijuana and that 800 dogs — which are expensive to buy and train — would be put out of work.

“The state crime lab does not have the testing equipment to test a green leafy substance to tell if it’s smokable hemp or to tell if it’s marijuana,” Caldwell said. “Nor do they have the personnel to operate the equipment if you decided to fund the equipment, so there would be a significant investment needed there.

“And without the ability to get a test from the state crime lab, it puts the district attorneys in an impossible situation trying to try the case in court,” he concluded.

Several other law enforcement representatives told the committee that it’s a “slippery slope” from hemp to marijuana to harder drugs.

Jackson has pushed back on claims made by law enforcement.

“Based off what you’re telling me that you cannot tell the difference between hemp and marijuana, you can’t do that today. You could not do that last week. And if we do nothing here today or with this bill, you will not be able to do it tomorrow,” he said during the House Agriculture Committee.

Jackson said the legislature unknowingly legalized marijuana from an enforcement standpoint when they established the hemp pilot program in 2015.

“So my question to you is, how are you enforcing it today?” he asked the law enforcement representatives in the room. “Where have y’all been the last four years? Why have you not come to see us?”

He reiterated his intention to find a test that would determine the level of THC in a substance. In the meantime, Jackson wants farmers to be able to reap the profits from this year’s crops. That’s why he insisted that the ban must be pushed to the end of 2020 instead of this year.

“What you’re actually saying to the world is, ‘We’re going to allow all forms of hemp to be grown and processed and sent all over the world. But our North Carolina citizens are not going to be able to buy it,” he said. “‘It’s illegal in North Carolina. But it’s OK to ship it out of the state.’”

Farmers push back 

The N.C. Industrial Hemp Commission called an emergency meeting Tuesday afternoon ahead of Wednesday’s hearing of the Farm Act. The commission passed a resolution asking lawmakers to remove the classification of hemp as a controlled substance. The two law enforcement representatives on the commission voted against the resolution.

Marc Simon and his son, came to the legislature in May to advocate for continued hemp cultivation. They have a farm and hemp store in Winston-Salem. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Fen Rascoe, a hemp commission member and hemp grower from Windsor, told NC Health News that for years lending and insurance agencies have told farmers growing hemp that they can’t help them until it’s legalized.

“They will run back into their holes if it’s classified as marijuana,” he said.

If lawmakers ban hemp flower, he said it would give hemp growers in other states a competitive edge over North Carolina farmers. Rascoe said this is the most “anti-farming piece of legislation.”

“I understand that law enforcement has a problem, but they are going to have to adapt,” he said. “There are technologies out there to test hemp.”

“They are worried about 800 dogs’ jobs. What about the 15,000 farmers’ jobs?” he said referring to the number of hemp licensees in the state.

“It feels like law enforcement is the fourth branch of government in this state,” he said. “Their role is to enforce the law, not make it.”

Guy Carpenter, a commissioner and businessman from Wilmington, spoke up during the emergency meeting to say that placing hemp in the same bucket as marijuana is like calling nonalcoholic beer alcohol.

He objected to the claim by some law enforcement officers that hemp is a “gateway drug.”

“I don’t believe drinking root beer leads someone to drinking beer then to liquor,” Carpenter said.

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