The Planted Row: We need to move faster on hemp

Stan Wise
Farm Forum Editor

The South Dakota House of Representatives passed a bill Monday that would create procedures to regulate the growth, transportation, and processing of industrial hemp, which was authorized in the 2018 Farm Bill.

The House passed this bill after Gov. Kristi Noem last week asked the Legislature to table discussions of legalization of hemp. In a news release on Feb. 8, Noem said the state “is not ready.”

Under the 2014 Farm Bill, states were authorized to set up pilot industrial hemp programs. South Dakota did not take advantage of that opportunity. What this means is that some states are already ahead of us, both in numbers of growers with experience in growing hemp and in infrastructure to regulate its growth.

Now is the time to speed up, not slow down. Why? Because the earlier South Dakota farmers can take advantage of this new crop, the higher their profits will be while supplies of the commodity are still low. As other states increase hemp production, more hemp will be on the market, driving prices farmers receive for the commodity lower. So, the longer we wait, the lower our profits.

Of course, all of this brouhaha is because hemp is a cousin to marijuana. And though hemp’s levels of tetrahydrocannabinol — THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis — are too low to get anyone high, hemp and marijuana plants are similar in appearance. How is a law enforcement officer supposed to tell the difference?

The House bill sets up a permitting program for hemp. Under it, anyone who wants to grow hemp must apply for a permit. Part of the permit application includes a criminal background check. Newsflash: If you’ve had a felony conviction related to controlled substances, you’re probably not going to grow hemp in South Dakota.

So if a law enforcement officer stops someone transporting something that looks like marijuana or comes across a field of something that looks like marijuana, and the responsible party can’t produce a state-issued hemp permit, well then chances are good that officer will have a drug case on his or her hands and not a case of a law-abiding citizen growing a federally approved crop.

Of course, anyone growing hemp will be subject to inspections by the state Department of Agriculture, and the House bill directs the Department of Agriculture to create procedures for such inspections. If any crop of hemp is found to contain more than 0.3 percent THC, it is to be destroyed.

If you’re like the governor, and you think all of this is happening too fast for the Department of Agriculture to develop inspection and enforcement procedures, you can relax a bit. The House bill won’t take effect until July 1, which is too late for a hemp crop to be planted and harvested this year. So, everything I’ve just mentioned won’t see field practice until the 2020 growing season. That means we’ve got more than a year to figure this out.

That puts South Dakota behind the states that already have it figured out.

We’re moving too slowly on this crop that has the potential to add more profit per acre to South Dakota farms. If the Senate listens to Noem and tables discussion, it will be next year before the Legislature can take it up again. That means it’ll likely be 2021 before our farmers can take advantage of this burgeoning market.

Our farmers are facing a tough ag economy right now, and they deserve a state government nimble enough to help them develop new revenue streams quickly. If you agree, let Noem and your state senators hear your voice.