North Carolina’s farm bill has passed the House, but it now may be frozen in the Senate.
Senate Bill 315, “North Carolina Farm Act of 2019,” was approved Wednesday, Aug. 21, by a 63-48 vote, but only after House members revised the omnibus legislation to outlaw the sale and use of dried, smokable hemp flowers May 1, 2020.
The bill heads to the Senate for concurrence, where its primary sponsor, Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, says he’ll recommend his colleagues give it a red light due to “a few glaring flaws.”
“The Senate version had his full support, but the changes made in the House are not acceptable,” Christopher Stock, a spokesman for Jackson, told Carolina Journal in an email. “This is a Farm Act and in its current form it stands to harm agriculture in North Carolina. That just doesn’t make sense.”
The federal government removed hemp — the non-psychoactive cousin of marijuana — from its list of controlled substances in 2018. But the plants look and smell similar, meaning police can’t tell the difference between what’s legal and what’s not.
Smokable hemp comprises roughly 20% of all hemp grown in North Carolina, and farmers make hundreds of dollars more per pound of raw, smokable hemp flowers than they do per pound of hemp sold to CBD oil manufacturers. Farmers will suffer critical financial losses if the legislature bans that part of their crops, said Blake Butler, executive director of the N.C. Industrial Hemp Association.
“The ban sent everything into a tailspin,” Butler told CJ.
Jackson, the primary sponsor of S.B. 315, wanted to delay a ban until Dec. 1, 2020. Give law officers and farmers time to find a test for THC levels — the psychoactive component that distinguishes between what is hemp, and what is marijuana, he said.
Legalizing smokable hemp inadvertently opens the door for marijuana, said Rep. Jimmy Dixon, who ran S.B. 315 through the House. Dixon, a Duplin County Republican, spearheaded multiple revisions to the Farm Bill, cracking down on the portions regulating hemp.
“The ‘de facto legalization’ phrase has been thrown around for months now, but in reality marijuana remains illegal in North Carolina,” Stock said. “The issue at hand is enforcement. Law enforcement currently uses sight and smell as components of probably cause and hemp is practically identical in those regards. However, most other illegal substances cannot be identified by sight or smell today.”
If the legislature fails to pass S.B. 315, farmers will operate without harm until next year — with the hope that Jackson is able to reach a compromise that benefits farmers and law enforcers, Butler told CJ. Hemp isn’t the only industry with interests tied to the legislation. The bill also includes provisions affecting the agri-tourism, pig farming, farm equipment, and sweet potato industries.
All of those pieces are positive, and have been overshadowed by the hemp debate, Stock said.
The hemp industry wants regulations in place to create a healthy marketplace, Butler said, but this legislative battle has frustrated farmers who weren’t expecting the state to trample their cash crops.
North Carolina’s hemp research pilot program — launched in 2016 — was intended for textile production, such as soap and rope. The program never was supposed to be about hemp consumption, Dixon has said. Smokable hemp is a new, unexplored product, and may be a gateway drug, said several House members Aug. 21 during floor debate.
Spiking demand for CBD oils and smokable hemp — both acclaimed for anxiety and pain-treating cannabinoids — have outpaced textiles in the marketplace, Butler said. Farmers in North Carolina have nowhere to send hemp for textile processing and manufacturing. Growers simply made investments where they saw consumer interest, he said.
Jackson hopes lawmakers will find compromise.
If North Carolina bans smokable hemp, Butler and his organization of farmers will sue.
That’s a last resort, he said, since farmers want to work with lawmakers and the N.C. Department of Agriculture.
“This is kind of a conundrum we’re in right now.”