News: CJ Exclusives

Arguments over smokable hemp cloud debate over farm legislation

If North Carolina bans smokable hemp, hundreds of farmers will lose money on their crops — and faith in their legislators, says Blake Butler, executive director of the N.C. Industrial Hemp Association. 

Hemp and marijuana are different plants, but some House lawmakers want to throw both into the same pot. A House committee on July 17 moved to ban smokable hemp flowers via Senate Bill 352, “Amend NC Controlled Substances Act.” It’s an unusual development pitting the chairs of the House and Senate agriculture committees — Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, and Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson — at odds over the most important farm legislation of the session.

The conflict began after Jackson pushed Senate Bill 315, “North Carolina Farm Act of 2019,” through his chamber of the N.C. General Assembly in June. Under the original bill, hemp farming would be widely legalized, making it a viable, regulated industry across the state. Jackson worked to postpone an immediate ban on smokable hemp, the flower that’s full of therapeutic cannabinoids but won’t get you high. 

Give the farmers and law enforcers time to work out a solution, Jackson said. 

Hold your roll, said the State Bureau of Investigation. The hemp plant looks just like marijuana, making it impossible for law enforcers to tell the difference between what’s legal, and what’s not. 

No good field test exists to help police check THC levels, the SBI said. 

Dixon listened. 

“I feel that some will use legal hemp as a stepping stone to legalize marijuana,” Dixon told Carolina Journal in a July 17 email, just hours before he proposed the ban. “Some marijuana users are already cloaking their illegal activity using the hemp loophole.”

State lawmakers can’t reschedule hemp as a controlled substance when the federal government has legalized it as an agricultural commodity, Butler said. While the flower may look and smell similar, it’s not hallucinogenic. 

“It’s not addictive. It’s definitely not a gateway drug,” Butler told CJ

Roughly 1,300 farmers in North Carolina grow hemp, he said. Forty are raising the plant for goods such as paper and rope. The remainder are cultivating CBD crops. 

The SBI reports more than 500 growers were licensed by the state as of January 2019, up from 348 the previous July.

Smokable hemp flowers are a huge part of the market, and farmers are shocked by the legislature’s attempt to ban it, Butler said. 

Criminalization would complicate things for law enforcers, since hemp flowers are also used to make legal CBD extracts and tinctures. Police could pull over a truckload of hemp bound for a CBD manufacturer and classify it as “smokable,” Butler said. 

If S.B. 352 becomes law, hemp growers will sue, Butler said. 

Any lawmaker who votes against the ban will be voting to legalize marijuana, said Dixon, who in 2015 opposed the bill establishing North Carolina’s hemp pilot program. 

“The sad thing is that some farmers have been led to invest too much too early in the smokable side by big money out-of-state interest,” Dixon said. “The cart has been before the horse from the beginning.” 

The House is ready to consider its differences in conference with the Senate, Dixon said.

But Jackson, who was in Canada when Dixon moved against smokable hemp, bluntly criticized the House’s actions in a July 17 email to CJ’s editors. 

“The House has altered the Farm Act of 2019 substantially from the original Senate bill,” Jackson said. “Their version places harsh new restrictions on the hemp industry and limits farmers who have otherwise been following the rules for the past four years. Additionally, changes were made to limit agritourism and expose certain confidential information that is otherwise protected at the state and federal levels.

“At the end of the day, I cannot see myself supporting the House version of the Farm Act if they insist on keeping these changes that will inevitably have a negative impact on farmers statewide.”

Jackson had been named president of the State Ag and Rural Leaders, a group with members in the U.S. and Canada. At the time he was at the group’s 2019 Summit in Calgary, Alberta.

S.B. 315 is on Wednesday’s calendar in the House Judiciary Committee. Jackson is scheduled to present the bill.  

S.B. 352 awaits further discussion in the House Rules Committee.