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These fact checks of North Carolina politics are a collaboration between PolitiFact and WRAL. You can hear them Wednesdays on WFAE's Morning Edition.

Fact Check: How much hemp is farmed in North Carolina?

A hemp plant.

It’s time for our weekly fact check of North Carolina politics. But, today’s segment is a little bit different. It’s not really a fact check. It’s more an examination of how a state senator’s false statement on hemp production got widely reported. For more, WFAE's Marshall Terry spoke to Paul Specht of WRAL.

Terry: Ok Paul, so state Senator Julie Mayfield of Buncombe County recently said the following, “A quarter of the entire acreage in the country that is under hemp production is here in North Carolina, a quarter."

You looked at this statement in part because it got so much coverage in the media. We’ll get into how wrong it was in a minute, but how did this statistic make its way into so many stories, this stat?

Specht: Well, because there's a lot of attention on this bill that would legalize medical marijuana. And that's a big deal. I mean, it's been a long time coming. I think bills have been filed each session for the last several sessions to try to head toward this direction with marijuana in North Carolina. And Mayfield, for her part, she got even more attention because her position on the bill is unique. She wants to legalize medical marijuana, but she voted against the bill. And her reasoning was that the way it's written only serves to allow big corporations to grow the marijuana that would be used medicinally. She says North Carolina has a large swath of farmers already here, already growing hemp that can participate. And so you didn't hear that many people talking about that.

A lot of the debate around legalizing medical marijuana was, you know, what kinds of ailments should it cover or should it be done at all or how many different types of groups support it? And, you know, there are a lot of different types of groups. Right before this bill was voted on there was a poll that came out that said Republicans, Democrats and even evangelical voters support just looser laws around marijuana. And so that that's why she had people's attention when she said this.

Terry: Now, again, she said a quarter of the entire acreage in the country that's under hemp production is here in North Carolina. And as we've already said, that statistic is false. Where did she get this statistic from?

Specht: When I emailed her after I first heard her claim within hours, the first person to get back to me was a woman named Nicolette Baglio. She has a hemp business in western North Carolina, and she emailed me and said, "Hey, Senator Mayfield forwarded this to me. And it was our group of hemp and marijuana activists that sent every state senator some talking points. And this one was a miscalculation." That was sort of the food chain here is there's a group of activists in western North Carolina. They want to see this bill passed but also amended so that more farmers can participate in this medical marijuana industry.

Terry: And as we've also said, this stat also made it into several news stories as well. As far as this incorrect stat getting disseminated so much, are reporters part of the problem here? They just assumed it was true.

Specht: That's an opinion question. I would say not really my job to go after say what reporters should or shouldn't do. But in most cases, from what I saw, it was attributed to Mayfield. So reporters did their job by saying Mayfield's the one who said this. Right? And I've been in this position before where I'm in a committee or I, you know, I've covered the legislature and I hear something. If it's interesting you attribute it to the person who said it, it's very hard when you're working on a daily story to verify everything everyone says before your deadline. There's just a lot to get done. And so if something's interesting, you might put it in there and say, Hey, I'll come back to this later. It's really hard to fact check things in real-time, which is why PolitiFact exists. And I'd say people who might want to get upset with newspaper reporters, I would say I would find it unfair to hold them to a higher standard than, say, radio people or television anchors like on CNN or something like that, who are interviewing a politician who then stretches the truth in real-time. It's really hard to fact check in real-time.

Terry: Is it fair to compare, say, newspaper reporters and live TV hosts or radio hosts who are in the middle of doing a live interview, fact checking in real time there versus a reporter who, you know, doesn't have a tremendous amount of time necessarily to fact check things, but has maybe a little bit more time. Does that make sense?

Specht: Newspaper reporters certainly have more time than, say, a radio host or a TV anchor who are live, obviously. There is a period of time where, you know, a reporter might be able to reach out to a lawmaker by email or maybe catch them coming off the floor. But as we saw here, oftentimes the person who makes these claims is getting their talking points from advocates, from lobbyists, places like that. So it's also possible you don't get your answer right away. When it comes to whether or not, to use a quote, I would still say, you know, obviously, each person needs to use their best judgment on what sounds right.

I don't want to second guess any reporter because I'm sure I've quoted some politicians who may stretched the truth on a floor debate or something like that. I would just say there is time for reporters to go back typically and follow up, although it usually takes politicians a while sometimes to even dig out the stats. Our fact checks take a long time, in part because it often takes lawmakers a day or two days or three days to get back to us, especially during campaign season when candidates are on the road, their staffs are tied up with other things. So there's just a lot that goes into it. If I was just an average person saying, "Hey, how did this false claim get disseminated so far and wide?" I really would ask for patience and grace for the reporters. They're doing their best to try to represent each lawmaker's position and quote them on why they hold that position. And I would argue that, you know, in this case, this was one example Mayfield gave while trying to speak to a broader point. So all that to say sometimes this stuff happens. And I would hope that people don't hold it too much against reporters. They're trying to do their job in a limited amount of time.

Terry: What did Mayfield have to say about citing this incorrect figure?

Specht: She just referred us to Baglio and said, "Hey, this is, you know, full transparency this is where I got my information." But she said the bigger point still stands. I don't have her direct quote right here in front of me. But to paraphrase it, it's North Carolina has a lot of hemp farmers and a lot more acreage than people would think. And with that in mind, lawmakers should expand this bill to allow them to participate in this market that they might create for medical marijuana.

Terry: So let's get the truth about hemp production in North Carolina. What are the facts?

Specht: Well, it just so happens that the USDA, the Department of Agriculture, released its annual report in February on production and harvestation and 2021. And so they tracked they track a lot of things, but the two biggest things are hemp that's planted and hemp that's harvested. North Carolina planted 4% of the nation's industrial hemp, so that's pretty far off from 25%. However, it was the eighth most in the country. And then when it comes to harvested hemp, we have even more. We have 5.5% of the nation's industrial hemp that was harvested in 2021, and that's sixth in the country. It's tied with Oregon for sixth. So it's certainly fair for Mayfield and the activists out in Asheville, in western North Carolina to point out we have a healthy hemp industry already here, already with hemp in the ground, some of the largest farmland swaths in America.

Terry: The bill legalizing medical marijuana has passed the state Senate. What's next for it? Does it have a good chance of becoming law?

Specht: Right now it looks like it's stuck in the House. House Speaker Tim Moore has expressed some concerns about it. That doesn't mean it's over. We still have a couple more weeks of the session up here and you never know what negotiations will go on behind the scenes. They're being pressured not just on medical marijuana, but on Medicaid expansion, which the Republican-controlled Senate has also passed. Those are two big stories here this year, Medicaid expansion and medical marijuana legalization, both supported by the Republican-controlled state Senate. That's new. That's sort of a pivot for them. And that leaves the spotlight on the house here. And so we'll all be watching to see what they do. My guess is we probably won't get both. We'll probably see one, if any at all pass through the state house.

Terry: All right, Paul, thank you.

Specht: Thank you.

Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.