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Hemp production for CBD is a new but growing ag sector. Jenny Schlecht / Forum News Service

Noem says many 'question marks' remain as lawmakers take up industrial hemp

PIERRE, S.D. — Noem administration officials on Monday, Aug. 19, warned South Dakota lawmakers of the implications of legalizing industrial hemp while officials running pilot programs in Montana and North Dakota said their efforts had gone off without a hitch.

As legislators met for an Industrial Hemp Summer Study meeting, they got a strong message of warning from Gov. Kristi Noem and officials in her Cabinet along with hundreds of questions they ought to answer as they move forward.

Growing industrial hemp became legal under state pilot programs as part of the 2014 Farm Bill and in 2018, the federal farm bill legalized growing hemp for commercial purposes, blowing up the demand for the new crop. But despite several efforts to pass legislation allowing an industrial hemp program in South Dakota, the efforts have come up short in Pierre.

Most recently, Noem vetoed a proposal earlier this year despite widespread support from lawmakers.

But Noem administration officials remained skeptical about legalizing industrial hemp. Ahead of the hearing, they submitted hundreds of questions to lawmakers that she asked them to consider.

“As a lifelong farmer and rancher, I would be thrilled to lead the charge in introducing a new crop that might bolster markets and support producers during this difficult season,” Noem said in a news release. “Industrial hemp, however, is surrounded by many question marks."

Officials in North Dakota and Montana said they’ve not run into issues with growers in the program abusing it to grow marijuana. And they said medical marijuana programs in each state have remained separate from the industrial hemp programs.

“I’m not trying to encourage or discourage anybody from growing it; I’m just trying to give ‘em the facts,” Doug Goehring, North Dakota commissioner of agriculture, said. “It is not going to save the farm, but it is another commodity, it’s another crop in rotation.”

In states that have greenlighted the production of hemp, the hemp seeds and grains can be used to produce food, the stalk can be used to make rope and textiles and female flowers of the plant can be used to make cannabidiol or CBD, an extract used to address various health issues. The FDA does not recognize these products but several vendors sell them.

“Hemp is not just an agriculture issue — it is a public safety issue; it is a health issue,” South Dakota Agriculture Secretary Kim Vanneman told the panel. “There is much that we still do not know."

And law enforcement officials said they had concerns about legalizing hemp as those transporting drugs could say they were carrying industrial hemp and pose a problem for officers as they can't test the hemp to determine its THC levels onsite. THC is the compound in marijuana that can cause psychoactive effects. Industrial hemp must not have THC levels exceeding 0.3% under federal law.

Lawmakers raised questions of their own and urged the administration to move forward, even if in an incremental fashion.

“I understand there’s some issues here, but I feel like we’re making this way more difficult than it needs to be,” House Majority Leader Lee Qualm, R-Platte, said. Qualm also chairs the study.

Qualm, a farmer, has long supported the industrial hemp proposal and on Monday expressed disappointment with the administration's extensive questions about the proposal.

“I’m not happy with the questions,” Qualm said. “I'll put it that way."

Lawmakers, farmers and others said the state needed to move quickly to develop a licensing and testing infrastructure or Native American tribes or other groups would move forward without the state's help or approval. And those transporting hemp to surrounding states that allow industrial hemp could be subject to legal actions.

“The tribes aren’t going to wait for you all,” Rep. Shawn Bordeaux, D-Mission, and an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe said. “They’re going to try to get a jump on things.”

On the same day, the Minnesota Hemp Association called on the federal government to set clearer guidance for drivers transporting hemp, citing a driver who'd been pulled over and charged with possession of marijuana last month when he was hauling hemp through South Dakota.

“A Minnesota Hemp Association member expected a shipment of legally grown hemp," Joe Radinovich, executive director of the association, said. "Instead, their driver was arrested and their hemp was confiscated in a state that isn’t complying with the farm bill and allowing hemp to be transported.”

Craig Price, secretary of the South Dakota Department of Public Safety, said the driver was transporting hemp from Colorado to Minnesota and was pulled over when a trooper smelled raw marijuana. The driver said he'd sampled the product and it tested positive with THC. He said he couldn't release additional details about the case as an investigation is pending.