Friday, 12 July 2019 13:39

State bill would ban smokable hemp: Federal laws passed in 2018 say it’s legal

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North Carolina hemp farmers are asking lawmakers to revise a bill that would ban smokable hemp, like the plants pictured here that are already being legally cultivated in the state. Law enforcement groups say smokable hemp is indistinguishable from marijuana without sophisticated lab testing. North Carolina hemp farmers are asking lawmakers to revise a bill that would ban smokable hemp, like the plants pictured here that are already being legally cultivated in the state. Law enforcement groups say smokable hemp is indistinguishable from marijuana without sophisticated lab testing. Drew C. Wilson - The Wilson Times

WILSON — A bill in the N.C. legislature that would ban smokable hemp could undercut North Carolina’s emerging hemp industry and curtail immediate relief for those suffering chronic conditions.

On Thursday, the House Finance Committee discussed Senate Bill 315, a bill to make various changes to state agricultural laws, but did not vote on it. The bill would require favorable reports from the finance and judiciary committees to reach a floor vote. The Senate version is different enough that it would have to go to a conference committee if it passes the House.

Scott Propheter of the new Wilson hemp processor Criticality was in Raleigh specifically working with stakeholder groups, law enforcement, the legislature and other folks in industry “in order to help drive this bill in a direction that provides the much-needed regulatory framework for this new emerging industry in the state while not limiting its potential.”

“Unfortunately, it’s become a little bit of a quagmire,” Propheter said. “Right now, there is significant division between the different stakeholder groups mostly revolving around a potential ban on smokable hemp. It is important to note that we, as a company, don’t produce smokable hemp products. However, we also believe in not limiting the potential of this industry.”

Law enforcement is pushing legislators to implement a ban on smokable hemp because authorities believe it causes significant issues with probable cause, searches and prosecutions involving marijuana.

A May memo from the State Bureau of Investigation warns that allowing the possession of smokable hemp could prevent state agents and local police and deputies from making marijuana arrests.

“Hemp and marijuana look the same and have the same odor, both unburned and burned. This makes it impossible for law enforcement to use the appearance of marijuana or the odor of marijuana to develop probable cause for arrest, seizure of the item or probable cause for a search warrant,” the SBI document sent to lawmakers states.

The North Carolina Industrial Hemp pilot program has been going on for three years and the number of state-licensed hemp growers has topped 1,000.

“I wish that this was an issue we could have been addressing in the last three years of the program,” Propheter said.

Profitter said law enforcement “packs the house and dominates the discussion.”

Growers, Profitter said, don’t have time to come to Raleigh because they are working on their farms.

“We have been fairly intimately involved with the process so far because this bill can potentially have far-reaching affects on our industry as a whole, not just the smokable hemp products, but also the hemp products that we manufacture as well,” Propheter said. “You are talking about an industry that could be a $100 million industry for the state of North Carolina, so chopping it off at the knees in its infancy I think would not be in the best interest of North Carolinians in general — and particularly farmers.”

This is the first big growing season since the 2018 farm bill made growing hemp legal across the country in December.

“It really is unfortunate because I firmly believe that this industry can be a boon to North Caroline agriculture,” Propheter said. “We really need this bill to go through in a reasonable manner so the North Carolina Department of Agriculture can start developing that regulatory framework that is going to set the gold standard for hemp production and hemp products nationwide.”

Propheter said there’s quite a bit of ambiguity in several parts of the bill that “desperately needs to be clarified to provide protections for the products that the legislature is not trying to ban, but also for the growers.”

“That ambiguity can be exploited in order to harass growers, and that is the last thing that growers need on the backs of low commodity crop prices as well as some of the attacks on agricultural production that are going on right now,” Propheter said.

Propheter said an important thing to note is that hemp products — including smokable parts of the plant — are legal under federal law.

“It is also important to note that Indiana recently imposed a smokable hemp ban and it has already gone to litigation,” Propheter said.

The N.C. Industrial Hemp Commission has approved 16 licenses for Wilson County that represent 78 acres. In 2018, only 8 acres of hemp were reported to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

By mid-July, most of the hemp farmers have already transplanted expensive hemp clones on their acreage.

“It is definitely troubling to me,” Propheter said. “These growers need to be able to commercialize this crop that they will potentially have spent $15,000 an acre on to grow successfully.”

Wilson grower Chris Flippo said growers have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in their hemp crop this year.

“I’ll put it this way: The entire county is growing smokable hemp varieties. They are pretty much saying that what we are doing is illegal,” Flippo said. “That’s a big deal to me.”

Julie Diaz co-owns of Utopia Wellness of Smithfield, a wellness-oriented store that showcases the whole hemp plant. Its main business is the sale of CBD, or cannabidiol, products.

Diaz has also traveled to Raleigh to lobby on behalf of the hemp industry.

She said she represents “the voice that is not being heard, which is a very large part of our client base, our seniors,” Diaz said. “Seniors are using this smokable hemp. This will affect them dramatically as well.”

“I think there is a big misunderstanding about what smokable hemp is,” Diaz said. “People do not use smokable hemp to get high. You cannot get high. You smoke marijuana for its THC. You smoke hemp or inhale hemp for its CBD, which is non-intoxicating.”

Diaz said she understands what law enforcement officers are against in attempting to tell the difference between hemp and marijuana. The look and smell very much the same.

Diaz said she is willing to support an open container law or work with law enforcement groups to make their job easier.

“There are other ways about this other than just banning it and hurting the people that are using it and finding relief,” Diaz said.

“Smokable hemp flower inhalation in general is the fastest acting and the most potent,” Diaz said. “It takes up to an hour for CBD oil to go into effect. Inhalables are like a break-the-glass kind of situation where they can get the relief that they need immediately, because within minutes it can go from the lungs into the bloodstream.”

Diaz called the proposed ban on smokable hemp “very disheartening.”