by John Ager, District 115 North Carolina House of Representatives
This month I thought I would tell you the saga of an interesting bill I have been working on. The bill involves “industrial hemp,“ which has been banned for seventy years because of its botanical association with its black sheep cousin marijuana.
Industrial hemp was a staple crop in early America. It is now being touted for its versatility of uses in our modern world, for biofuels, clothing, rope, paper, building material (hempcrete) and much more. Hemphill Road off of 74A near the Parkway is surely a reminder of a hemp farmer of yesteryear.
Being in touch with many of our mountain farmers, I have been contacted several times about lifting the ban on industrial hemp cultivation in North Carolina. And I wondered, is this really just a first step in legalizing marijuana? Just how different are the plants? Can you grow hemp and hide marijuana in the fields? Would law enforcement officers be able to tell the difference? In my own mind, I felt like hemp cultivation was a long way off in our state.
At an agricultural reception in Raleigh, I talked with Larry Wooten of Farm Bureau, whom I had known for many years. I asked what was the deal with hemp cultivation here. The Farm Bureau remains very powerful in our state regarding agricultural policy. He said, somewhat to my surprise, that Farm Bureau did not oppose hemp, but he thought its economic value was over-hyped. I am always looking out for ways to help our farmers, and hemp seemed like a crop that might even be able to replace tobacco.
The saga of hemp legislation rightly begins with the 2014 Farm Bill in Congress, which opened up hemp research possibilities in the United States. North Carolina responded in 2015 with SB (Senate Bill) 313, introduced on March 17, 2015. The bill created a five-member Industrial Hemp Commission, which included two law enforcement members and an agricultural faculty member. $200,000 in donations would need to be raised from private donors as a first step. The Commission would license growers, promote hemp products, and conduct agricultural research. That bill passed the Senate on April 16 and was sent to the House on a 43 to 1 vote.
The bill bounced in and out of various House committees (but not Agriculture, where I serve!) all summer, and it changed. That indicated to me that the bill worried someone in House leadership. On September 28, with time running out, SB 313 came before the House, which voted overwhelmingly for its passage (101–7). Since the Senate bill had been changed by the House, the Senate had to vote on the House version and did so the next day; it passed 42–2 and was sent to the governor. Apparently Governor McCrory had reservations, no doubt having something to do with that rogue hemp cousin. A veto would have been pointless with the vote tallies, so he allowed it to become law without his signature on October 31, a less than ringing endorsement.
Over the winter, the Hemp Commission was able to raise its $200,000, and when the Short Session began last April 25, it was clear industrial hemp was moving forward in North Carolina.
What was needed now was clarification of the program, and on April 27 HB 992, “Amend Industrial Hemp Program,” was introduced. This time, the bill would go through the House Agriculture Committee. In early June, this committee scheduled a discussion-only hearing of HB 992. We learned that the cultivation of industrial hemp in close proximity with marijuana was impractical because the pollination of the former spoiled the THC levels of the latter. We learned a great deal more, and the legislators were given much comfort.
On June 9, the bill was voted favorably out of the Agriculture Committee unanimously and sent to the House floor for a vote on June 13. During the debate on the floor, Representative Dixon introduced an amendment to limit the acreage per farmer and the overall acreage. He said he wanted to protect the small grower. HB 992 passed as amended, but each bill has to pass two votes, and the second vote was objected to and rescheduled for the next day. Early the next morning, a group came to my office, including my small-farmer Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, to say that the acreage limits would strangle the production of hemp. Later that day, Representative Dixon took out those limits; the Industrial Hemp bill then passed 108–4 and was sent to the Senate. By the time you are reading this article, I expect the bill to have passed the Senate, and we will see once again how the governor will handle it.
When I returned to my office after the House vote, I received a call from Black Mountain from a gentleman who had been following the bill very closely. He owned a company called TerraVare, and wanted to bring his processing equipment to Buncombe County from New York to process hemp seeds. It would be a major investment and create good jobs. While the question about economic viability is yet to be answered, it does appear that industrial hemp could be a boon for our farmers and could create some manufacturing jobs in the mountains. For anyone interested, you can look up HempX.
I hope this example of the legislative process (also known as sausage making!) has been of interest to the Town Crier readers this month.
John Ager’s Contact:
NC House of Representatives
16 West Jones St, Room 1004,
Raleigh NC 27601-1096
John.Ager@ncleg.net or firstname.lastname@example.org
628-2616 / 713-6450 cell NCleg.net