FILE - Hemp

A hemp field in summer.

The North Carolina Senate is expected to vote Monday on a bill that regulates hemp farming in the state after deliberations over the measure carried on months.

Last week, both the Senate and the House reached a deal over the North Carolina Farm Act. The bill, which was proposed in the Senate in March, oversees the growing and production of hemp crops in the state. 

There remains disagreement over the legalization of smokeable hemp. 

“The House had a more strict ban in place. We felt like we needed the federal government to clarify state control,” said Benjamin King, research assistant for state Sen. Brent Jackson. “We do expect to be going back to the regulations for years.”

The bill, as it stands, will make smokable hemp illegal starting June 2020.

North Carolina law enforcement officials pushed for the smokable hemp ban because of the difficulty to distinguish between hemp and a sister plant, marijuana. 

Blake Butler, executive director of the North Carolina Hemp Association, said some state officials inaccurately condemn hemp as “something wrong.”

While both products derive from cannabis, they differ in the amount of Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical that produces a high in marijuana users.

Marijuana typically contains 3 to 15 percent THC on a dry-weight basis. Hemp has less than 1 percent. 

North Carolina currently has a hemp cultivation pilot program based on the guidelines of the U.S. Agricultural Act of 2014. The federal bill allows certain institutions to grow or process the cannabis plant or related commodities with a minimum THC concentration of 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis. North Carolina started its pilot program in 2015. In 2018, the federal government removed hemp from the controlled substances list and expanded the production of hemp under the same guidelines.

King said some lawmakers mischaracterize hemp.

“Our state believes that if you smoke hemp then it would be a gateway to other drugs,” he said.

North Carolina has licensed 896 processors, 1351 growers on 16,924 acres and 6.5 million square feet of greenhouse space in 2019, according to the state's Department of Agriculture.

Butler said that hemp farmers are disappointed that legislators did not expand the operations of the industry until at least December 2020, adding that the new provision is “not good for the industry.”

“It does not give us any time to work with law enforcement,” he said.

Current production plans could also be stalled.

“Farmers need to make investments 18 months out,” said Butler, who went to the state capitol Monday to monitor the progress of the Farm Act.

Shawn Harding, policy director for North Carolina Farm Bureau said: "Most farmers are just looking for something to bring profitability back to the farm."

The Senate is scheduled to vote on the bill after 7 p.m., when session reconvenes.

Jackson, a melon farmer, is a sponsor of the bill and the chair of the conference committee that finalized the compromise last Thursday.

“Ideally, we hope that we can come back after the U.S. Department of Agriculture clarifies the rules,” King said.

Staff Reporter

Nyamekye Daniel has been a journalist for three years. She was the managing editor for the South Florida Media Network and a staff writer for The Miami Times. Daniel's work has also appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and The New York Times.