Could industrial hemp be a wonder non-drug for South Dakota farmers?

Farm Forum

PIERRE — A state lawmaker said Monday he wants production and sale of industrial hemp to become legal in South Dakota.

Rep. Mike Verchio, R-Hill City, outlined his proposal at a meeting of the Legislature’s task force on tribal economic development.

Verchio also wants the Governor’s Office of Economic Development to help finance facilities for processing the hemp.

Currently the federal government considers all forms of marijuana including industrial hemp to be Schedule 1 drugs that are generally banned. Heroin is another Schedule 1 drug.

Verchio’s draft legislation would designate industrial hemp as an oilseed if it has no more than three –tenths of 1 percent of tetrahydrocannabinol.

Known as THC, the chemical compound produces the altered mental and physical states associated with marijuana use.

THC levels in marijuana seized by law enforcement agents in the United States hovered between 2 and 4 percent during the 1980s and then began climbing steeply in the mid-1990s, reaching 10 percent by 2009.

That is according to a University of Mississippi monitoring report distributed by the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Verchio wouldn’t be the first South Dakota lawmaker to seek a path for legalization of industrial hemp.

The Legislature considered a resolution in 2014 from Rep. Elizabeth May, R-Kyle, that called for the federal government to recognize industrial hemp as “a valuable agricultural commodity.”

House members including Verchio supported May’s resolution 61-6 but the Senate rejected it 21-13.

May and Verchio serve on the Legislature’s tribal economic development panel. She told Verchio she would support his legislation once she sees the final version.

Verchio said industrial hemp’s production and the related construction of processing facilities could be a development opportunity for tribal governments that have large expanses of agricultural land.

He described it as one of the easiest plants to grow.

In its current form, Verchio’s bill would require a person engaged in industrial-hemp activities of production, processing or research to apply for a license from the state Department of Agriculture.

The licensing process for producers and processors would include state and national criminal background checks. The license wouldn’t be conditioned upon approval from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.

The seed types and varieties would have to be reported to the state Department of Agriculture. Sales and distribution also would be subject to reporting requirements.

The legislation calls for a THC-testing program by the department. The program would be funded through a fee of $5 per acre of production with a minimum of $150 per license.

There is federal legislation pending that calls for industrial hemp to be removed from the Schedule 1 drug list. Products containing industrial hemp are available to U.S. consumers but there isn’t U.S. production of the raw product.

Many states across the nation have taken partial or full steps toward authorizing industrial hemp, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

At least 13 have state laws allowing industrial hemp to be produced commercially, according to NCSL. Among them are two of South Dakota’s neighbors, North Dakota and Montana.

Seven other states permit research for agricultural and academic purposes. Another of South Dakota’s neighbors, Nebraska, is one.

Verchio said he would like personnel from the state attorney general’s office, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and the state Department of Agriculture to attend the next meeting of the tribal economic development task force.

May said it is “absolutely ridiculous” that U.S. agricultural producers can’t plant industrial hemp as a rotation crop. She described allowing hemp to be grown as “very, very beneficial.”

Law enforcement’s question is how to tell industrial hemp from higher-THC marijuana when found in the trunk of a car, according to May. She said she can’t imagine why anyone would carry industrial hemp in the trunk of a car.

May agreed testing and licensing would be needed but she said she doesn’t want regulation to deter the crop’s production in South Dakota. “I would love to support this bill after I have seen it,” she said.

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