Raleigh, N.C. — A legislative fight over hemp production in North Carolina shifted from a farming bill to a measure on illegal drugs on Wednesday, as a House committee voted to classify smokable hemp as a controlled substance.
Smokable hemp was the focus of two House committees on Wednesday morning, as Finance considered the annual Farm Act and Judiciary debated changes to the state's Controlled Substances Act.
A rewrite to Senate Bill 352 would tweak the definition of marijuana in state statutes to include smokable hemp. Processed hemp products and extracts such as CBD oil would remain legal in North Carolina under the proposal.
“This bill does not prevent a licensed grower from growing, handling, selling [or] transporting and product that they can produce,” Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, told members of the House Judiciary committee. “The only thing it does is that it prohibits consumption of smokable hemp, with the exception of the CBD oil.”
Smokable hemp became legal last year when the federal government loosened its restrictions in an effort to boost the wider hemp industry, which creates a range of products, including rope, clothes, paper, food and CBD oil.
The hemp flower contains CBD, a compound that many people believe has a range of medicinal qualities, but only miniscule amounts of THC, the compound that produces marijuana's characteristic high. The problem is that the smokable flower looks and smells like marijuana, and police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors around the state have said that, if the legislature keeps smokable hemp legal, marijuana might as well be legal as well.
“As long as smokable hemp is legal for use and sale in North Carolina, marijuana laws are virtually unenforceable,” Fred Baggett, legal counsel for the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police, told members of the House Finance committee.
“It creates insurmountable barriers to enforcement,” agreed Mike Waters, district attorney for Granville, Franklin, Vance and Warren counties.
Law enforcement isn't just worried about it being harder to enforce marijuana laws but about losing probable cause for searches based on the smell of marijuana smoke, or when a drug dog keys in on a vehicle.
“If this bill passes without the ban, we will put 800 of our law enforcement dogs and their handlers out of business,” Dixon said.
Rhian Merwold, legislative director for the State Bureau of Investigation told lawmakers that, while drug officers could be reassigned, K-9s trained to alert for the smell of marijuana would have to be retired. “You can't unteach them,” she said.
A disagreement over smokable hemp has stalled the Farm Act, which focuses on setting up the necessary regulatory framework to expand the hemp farming industry in the state but also includes provisions on hog farms, skeet shooting and sweet potatoes.
The House version of the bill bans smokable hemp as of Dec. 1, which Dixon said would give farmers time to harvest their hemp crop this year. The Senate last month passed the Farm Act with a December 2020 ban to give the industry and law enforcement time to come up with a reliable field test to tell the difference between hemp buds and marijuana.
Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, who sponsored the Farm Act, has been vehemently opposed to Dixon's effort to crack down on smokable hemp, saying last week that he'd rather drop the Farm Act's hemp provisions than pass Dixon's version of the bill.
Hemp farmers have said that the smokable flower is the most profitable part of their business and accounts for about 20 percent of sales overall.
“If you take away smokable hemp, as a farmer, I don’t know what we would do,” Fredericka Martin, who said she has invested $100,000 in greenhouses in Concord to produce smokable hemp year round, told lawmakers. “You’re letting down the farmer.”
Blake Butler, director of the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Association, said the smokable hemp ban would “devastate” the industry in the state.
“We are currently a top five state in hemp. We’re getting ready to get a lot of press for the wrong reasons,” Butler said. “We’re throwing our hands up. We’re telling our nation, with all the technology in the world, we can’t figure this out.”
“This is a flower that kills zero people and it helps so many,” said Michael Sims, who owns a store that sells CBD-based products. “If we start banning something that is federally legal, it’s a slippery slope.”
Sims said tests exist that can distinguish hemp from marijuana, and he and others in the industry would gladly accept taxes to generate revenue for law enforcement to have access to such testing equipment.
The Farm Act passed the House Finance committee Wednesday on a 16-11 vote and could be on the House floor by early next week. It's unclear, however, how the House and the Senate will resolve their differences on the smokable hemp ban and pass a final bill.
The House Judiciary committee passed the drug bill on a voice vote, and it also could be on the House floor by next week.