Hemp, marijuana fight may doom NC Farm Act

Posted July 11, 2019 1:17 p.m. EDT
Updated July 11, 2019 1:37 p.m. EDT

— North Carolina's annual Farm Act is on the rocks at the legislature as two of the state's most influential policymakers on farming joust over hemp.

Senate Bill 315 is wide-ranging, with sections affecting hog farms, skeet shooting, sweet potatoes and more. But it's the provisions on hemp that threaten to derail the entire measure as lawmakers struggle to balance the interests of a growing industry with concerns from law enforcement that the bill would essentially legalize marijuana.

Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, and Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, who have shepherded agriculture legislation through the legislature together for years, couldn't even agree Thursday on what the latest version of the bill would do, and both sides have refused to back the other's preferred language on smokable hemp.

Smokable hemp has CBD, which many people believe has a range of medicinal qualities, but only miniscule amounts of THC, which produces marijuana's characteristic high. The problem is that smokable hemp 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.

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.

Smokable hemp became legal 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.

This year's Farm Act is an attempt to regulate and boost the hemp industry that sprouted in North Carolina as a result. The bill once banned the plant's smokable flowers as of December 2019, but that was pushed back in the Senate to December 2020 to give the industry and law enforcement time to find a solution, and potentially time for a reliable field test to emerge that can tell the difference between hemp buds and marijuana.

That delay won't fly for Dixon, and the bill pending now in the House would define smokable hemp as marijuana, subject to the same legal penalties for possession. Jackson said Thursday that he's fully against this change, which would keep farmers from selling one of the most profitable parts of the hemp plant – at least in North Carolina.

"You might as well just throw up a flag to the United States and to the world that North Carolina does not welcome hemp farmers," Jackson said.

Jackson and Dixon also sparred in a morning committee meeting over what the change would mean for CBD extracts, which have become widely available as oils and lotions used for various ailments.

"If you approve this ... you're not only banning smokable hemp, you're banning CBD oil as well," Jackson said.

"That is absolutely, irrevocably, provably false," Dixon replied.

A legislative attorney weighed in, but didn't fully lay the issue to rest. He said the new bill might ban cartridges of inhaled CBD oil, but "I'm not sure about the tinctures and creams."

The House Finance committee adjourned soon after without taking a vote to move the bill forward. Dixon tried, when the full House came into session later Thursday morning, to have the bill removed from Finance and put back into House Agriculture, which he chairs.

He set aside that effort to move the bill after House Speaker Tim Moore delayed a decision on the matter and Rep. Julia Howard, R-Davie, chairwoman of House Finance, promised her committee would meet again soon.

Jackson said he'd rather drop the Farm Act's hemp provisions than pass Dixon's version, which would leave the crop unregulated in North Carolina outside of a pilot project put into law several years back. If that happens, or if the entire bill fails, smokable hemp would remain legal, a reality that gives Jackson's side leverage in the fight.

"Doing nothing is not an option," Dixon said Thursday.

The bill has other controversial sections, including a change in the state open records act meant to protect records filed with soil and water conservation district offices.

Jackson has said repeatedly that he simply wants to bring state regulations in line with federal rules that already exempt the information from public release, but concerns persist that the change will be used to shield nuisance complaints against hog farms from public view.

Neighbors have filed a number of successful lawsuits against hog farms in recent years, with verdicts against industry giant Smithfield Foods in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The legislature has changed state law repeatedly in an effort to rein in these sorts of suits.

There was also language in the bill that to add shooting sports, such as skeet shooting, to the state's definition of agritourism, freeing farms to go into that line of business without worrying about local zoning laws.

That section got a key amendment in House Finance on Thursday that would leave these operations subject to local zoning decisions, potentially allowing neighbors concerned about noise to block shooting sport facilities from farms near their homes.