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Flower to the people: NC law enforcement, prosecutors say not so fast

Industrial hemp in a greenhouse (Photo: NC Industrial Hemp Association)

North Carolina law enforcement officials and prosecutors are getting blunt about their position on smokable hemp: it looks like weed, it smells like weed and officers can’t tell it apart from weed, so ban it.

“Since smokable hemp and marijuana are indistinguishable by appearance and odor, without enactment of legislation clearly banning smokable hemp, we will have de facto legalization of marijuana,” states a joint press release from North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, the NC Conference of District Attorneys, the NC Association of Chiefs of Police and the NC State Bureau of Investigation.

The organizations are urging lawmakers to pass Senate Bill 315, the North Carolina Farm Act of 2019, as soon as possible so law enforcement, prosecutors, licensed farmers and the public “clearly know what hemp substances are lawful and unlawful.” The bill was passed by the Senate in last year’s long session but stalled in the House, with most of the division focused on the smokable hemp section.

SB 315 defines smokable hemp as “harvested raw or dried hemp plant material, including hemp buds or hemp flowers, hemp cigars, and hemp cigarettes.” Hemp and marijuana both come from the cannabis plant, but hemp contains much smaller amounts of THC, the illegal psychoactive compound that causes the high from marijuana. Federal law currently defines industrial hemp as cannabis plants containing less than 0.3 percent THC by dry weight (marijuana can contain more than 30 percent).

CBD oil and similar extracts, plus rope, textiles, food products — all derived from hemp — would remain legal under SB 315.

Law enforcement already pleaded with lawmakers during last year’s session to prohibit smokable hemp. Their arguments now have not changed.

“There is no practical way for law enforcement officers to distinguish the flowering variety of hemp (i.e. smokable hemp) from marijuana because it is the same plant,” states the Tuesday news release. “The plant looks and smells the same (unburned or burned), whether it is hemp or marijuana. The only difference is the level of THC contained in the plant.”

The release points out that there is currently no validated field test which distinguishes the difference between smokable hemp and marijuana. Police narcotics detection K9s can’t tell the difference either, because they are trained to detect THC, which presents in both plants.

The North Carolina State Crime Laboratory also currently does not have the appropriate equipment or personnel necessary to determine the concentration of THC which is necessary to distinguish smokable hemp from marijuana, according to the release.

Farmers said last year during committee meetings that the concerns over the smokable plant were overblown. If they can’t grow smokable products, it would put their budding industry at an economic disadvantage compared with other states that do allow it. The North Carolina Hemp Retailers Association and the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Association could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

The controversy over smokable hemp isn’t just unfolding in North Carolina. Louisiana and Indiana banned smokable hemp sales last year, and Texas banned smokable hemp manufacturing. Kentucky banned sales of hemp cigarettes, cigars, whole hemp buds and ground flowers in 2018, according to an article on the Pew Charitable Trusts website.

Nationally, people spend more money on hemp CBD oil than on smokable flower, the Pew article states. The biggest CBD product category — tinctures — hit about $1 billion in sales in 2019, said Virginia Lee, CBD research manager at the Brightfield Group, a cannabis market research firm based in Chicago.

By contrast, an estimated $70.6 million of hemp CBD pre-roll and raw flower were sold in the United States in 2019, Lee said. But, she said, those sales are growing.

North Carolina lawmakers return Tuesday. It’s not clear yet whether House members will take SB 315 up again — if passed, the smokable hemp ban would be effective beginning June 1.

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