Andrew Ross, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Afghanistan, in January was working private security for a cross-country delivery of hemp. Ross’s task was simple: Guard a truckload of state-approved industrial hemp, grown in Kentucky, and bound for Colorado.
Ross was pulled over by police in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, after the delivery truck he was trailing ran a stoplight. The Associated Press reported in March that Ross showed the officers his Kentucky-issued hemp license, the license for the Colorado lab that bought the hemp, and the paperwork proving all 60 bags of hemp were low in THC — the psychoactive compound found in marijuana.
That didn’t satisfy officers, whose tests showed unknown levels of THC. They arrested Ross and his three co-workers.
The charges, which could’ve put Ross in prison for 18 years to life if he were convicted, were dropped. But the 18,000 pounds of hemp he was hired to deliver are still locked away.
Ross’ case — one of several recorded over months — reflects concerns of policymakers and law enforcers who are debating the future of hemp farming and manufacturing in North Carolina. Senate Bill 315, “North Carolina Farm Act of 2019,” would among other things expand a 2014 hemp pilot project, turning it into a statewide program with broad regulations. S.B. 315’s primary sponsor, Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, would like to see hemp farming become a viable industry — especially as North Carolina’s tobacco farms decline.
Adopting a law for statewide hemp farming would make North Carolina a pioneer in the field, said Geoffrey Lawrence, a senior researcher at the libertarian Reason Foundation. Lawrence, a former policy analyst for the John Locke Foundation, studies cannabis policy and is a consultant on the topic to lawmakers around the country.
Hemp wasn’t always taboo in the United States. It was widely used since the early 1600s to make cloth, paper, and rope. Betsy Ross even used hemp fabric to sew the very first American flag.
But the plant was criminalized in 1938 under the Marihuana Tax Act, which ended legal production of hemp because of its relation to the psychoactive marijuana plant.
In 2013, the federal government passed a law permitting hemp farming only for research at specific institutions. Last year, the plant — lauded for health benefits derived from its non-psychoactive cannabidiol (CBD) compounds — was completely removed from the federal government’s Controlled Substances Act.
The declassification created a big, gray area between state and federal law. Practically speaking, Jackson said, hemp is legal nationwide, unless states individually rule otherwise. That’s how a myriad of stores selling hemp products — such as CBD infused oils, lotions, and edibles — have popped up around North Carolina. Multiple reports from the News and Observer scrutinized the legality of these retailers, since the declassification and legalization of hemp ultimately is subject to a state plan, or a plan established by the United States Department of Agriculture.
No such plan exists yet.
If North Carolina passes S.B. 315 into law, it will set the national tone for hemp farming, Lawrence said. Regulations included in the bill may seem cumbersome, but are required for compliance with federal law, he added.
North Carolina’s 2014 pilot program kick-started hemp production (for research purposes) around the state. S.B. 315 would rename the Industrial Hemp Commission as the North Carolina Hemp Commission. The body would transition from research, to regulation, overseeing licensing and compliance for growers and processors.
Jackson said he expects a smooth transition for growers and manufacturers, but law enforcers are concerned that a statewide program would be too much to handle.
It’s impossible for officers to visually differentiate between hemp and marijuana, Lawrence said. If more farmers are allowed to grow and transport hemp, stories like Ross’ — where people are arrested for possessing a legal plant that looks like a criminal one — may become far more common.
One solution — proposed by the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation — is to ban all hemp and CBD oil products, making them legal only for people with epilepsy, according to reports from the News and Observer.
Ideally, the federal government would completely remove marijuana from its list of controlled substances and allow states to regulate it however they choose — though that isn’t likely in any case, Lawrence said.
Nobody is trying to legalize marijuana, and the General Assembly is working with law enforcement on a plan to test for accurate THC levels during roadside stops, Jackson told Carolina Journal.
S.B. 315 would establish a task force to resolve concerns of law enforcement. The hemp industry is encouraged to work with law enforcement and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture to develop best practices, Jackson added.
The bill is just a starting point, and will “almost surely have to be tweaked in the future as the industry changes,” he said.
S.B. 315 is scheduled for a Senate floor vote Monday, June 17.