RALEIGH — Members of North Carolina’s hemp industry believe hemp could be the next cash crop for the state, but concerns from law enforcement are bringing a major part of the industry, smokable products, under scrutiny.
Sen. Brent Jackson (R-Sampson), who co-chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, sees hemp as important enough to the state’s farmers to make it the focus of the 2019 Farm Act. But he told North State Journal it was a difficult task to strike the right balance between the hemp industry and the state’s law enforcement, who are concerned there isn’t a good way to differentiate between “smokable hemp,” which is legal, and marijuana, which is not.
Cannabis with 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive element known as THC, or lower is considered industrial hemp and is legal to grow and distribute in North Carolina. Marijuana, another variety of the cannabis plant, appears virtually identical but has anywhere from 5% to 40% THC.
“The SBI says there is no field test,” Jackson said. “You can send it to the laboratory to test it, but there is nothing out there to date to purchase anywhere to do an instant test. So, that’s their concern.”
Founder’s Hemp’s Bob Crumley, chairman and founder of the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Association, which claims many hundreds of members in the state, says there are quick tests available.
“There are two roadside kits available in the United States that I’m aware of for law enforcement to use to differentiate between hemp and marijuana,” Crumley told NSJ. “That means law enforcement can tell the difference if they want to get educated.”
Crumley said Guilford County was able to put one of these kits to the test. They ran an experiment with known marijuana and known industrial hemp, and the tests were able to identify which was which 100% of the time, according to Crumley. He said the SBI doesn’t take this into account in their recent “wish list” of what they wanted included in the 2019 Farm Act.
“The SBI has had multiple years to deal with these issues and has just failed to do it,” Crumley said. “I’ve been teaching law enforcement all across the state, from literally Rocky Mount to Forsyth County. I’ve trained sheriff’s departments, police departments. I’ve offered to train the SBI, but they haven’t taken us up on that. So, for the SBI to come in at this late date and start raising issues is concerning to us.”
During public comment as the bill was being debated in the Senate Agriculture Committee, Rhian Merwald, legislative affairs manager for the SBI, made clear that the agency is not ready to make determinations in the field on what is “smokable hemp” and what is marijuana.
“The SBI completely understands the impact of the hemp industry on our state; however, it is imperative that law enforcement across North Carolina have the mechanisms in place to effectively do their jobs and enforce current state laws,” Merwald said. “We have concerns with this amendment passed today moving the effective date to a year out because, in our interpretation, that would legalize marijuana until 2020 from an enforcement standpoint.”
Jackson said it’s not his intention to legalize marijuana with this bill, and he doesn’t “intend to do it unintentionally.”
“The SBI came to us and said this is a problem they’re having,” Jackson said. “We’re trying to work with them, but at the same time, we don’t want to kill a viable industry.”
Jackson added he has been “bombarded with emails” since they released the bill from constituents saying that CBD oils have helped them with everything from pain to epilepsy to anxiety.
“If we get this in place, we’re going to be one of the only ones in the nation that has their act together on hemp,” Jackson said.
Crumley said hemp has a lot of promise in N.C. because it was the state’s original cash crop before tobacco, and the farms can return to that use. With 2018 showing hemp to be a more than $100 million industry, he predicts it will soon rival tobacco and believes they can prove over the next year and a half — before the bill’s December 2020 deadline — that there are good ways for law enforcement to differentiate between hemp and marijuana.
Merwald said the SBI was not going to take a position on the bill yet, but they would be involved in the discussions as more amendments and tweaks were made toward the final bill.
“I see this being tweaked for the next several years until we get this right,” Jackson concluded, citing shifting federal regulations as one potential complication.
Senate Bill 315, the North Carolina Farm Act of 2019, has multiple committees to pass through before it reaches the floor for a vote but has support and sponsorships from members of both parties. It would then pass on to the House for further review.