North Carolina farmers have voiced opposition to a proposed ban on smokable hemp, saying it would keep them from capitalizing on the fast-growing hemp industry.
The bill containing the ban passed the state Senate Agriculture Committee on Wednesday and seeks to expand the state's pilot hemp farming program.
The State Bureau of Investigation pushed for the proposed ban on smokable hemp in a committee hearing last week, saying that it's difficult for law enforcement to discern smokable hemp from marijuana.
Hemp, which can also be used for industrial production of paper, clothing, construction materials and biofuels, contains less than 0.3 percent of THC, the compound that gives marijuana its high. But even though hemp doesn't give smokers a high, law enforcement says it looks and smells like marijuana, allowing it to be easily mistaken for its more potent counterpart.
This was the case when a North Carolina woman was arrested in April for marijuana possession after police officers saw her smoking legal hemp to treat her chronic pain.
Farmers say smokable hemp is a highly profitable product within the hemp industry and that banning it would hurt them at a time where many in the traditional tobacco-farming state are dealing with hurricane damage and decreased tobacco prices.
Lawmakers amended the bill last week to delay the ban on smokable hemp until Dec. 1, 2020, giving them time to figure out how to regulate the budding industry. In the hearing last week, scores of farmers, such as second-year hemp farmer Lori Lacy of Franklin, said they wanted to work with law enforcement to find a solution that satisfies law enforcement needs and avoids a smokable hemp ban.
"We want to work for regulation," Lacy said. "I don't want our infrastructure and everything that we have built up to this point to go away. I will have to fire people."
Bill co-sponsor Republican Sen. Brent Jackson of Sampson County introduced the amendment to delay the ban.
Jackson said he believed devices would soon be on the market that would allow law enforcement to test whether a substance is legal hemp or illegal marijuana.
"I don't see it taking until Dec. 1, 2020 before one of these or many different types of these are on the market," he said.
This type of field test, Jackson said, could address law enforcement concerns around smokable hemp, and if they become more available, he said he expects lawmakers will revisit the issue.
The bill still has to pass through three more committees before reaching the Senate floor, where Jackson thinks it has a good chance of passage because many lawmakers want to position North Carolina, which has over 600 licensed hemp growers and 400 registered hemp processors, as a leader in the lucrative industry.
The bill also makes it easier for industrial-scale hog farms to change their waste management systems and expands agritourism in the state.