Those with experience working with hemp as an agricultural crop make no bones about the difficulty of regulating the industry.
“It’s challenging – there’s no doubt about it – but we are making it work,” said Tony Cortilet, weed specialist for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, speaking on a panel at the Dakotafest farm show in Mitchell, South Dakota Aug. 21. About 40 people listened in.
Hemp comes from the same plant as marijuana, which is classified as an illegal drug. They look and smell the same. The difference is the amount of THC, the psychoactive component that causes a “high.” Industrial hemp can have no more than 0.3% THC content. Labs can test for that, but there are no on-the-road tests available for law enforcement to have on hand during traffic stops or field visits.
Without a way to test quickly, officers are put in a challenging position when they come across hemp or marijuana, said Craig Price, secretary of the South Dakota Department of Public Safety.
Law enforcement issues were a sticking point when Gov. Kristi Noem vetoed a bill this spring that would have allowed farmers to grow hemp in South Dakota. Since then, legislators have been digging deeper to find a way to make it happen. A summer study committee held its second meeting just before Dakotafest, spending five hours listening to ag department leaders from North Dakota, Montana and others.
Rep. Lee Qualm, R-Platte, is chairman of the committee. He sat on the Dakotafest panel with fellow legislator and bill sponsor Rep. Oren Lesmeister, D-Parade. The next meeting is set for October, and the group hopes the U.S. Department of Agriculture will have issued its rules for hemp by then.
Once rules are in place, there won’t be much holding growers and processors back, even in South Dakota. Tribes are already going that route, according to Lesmeister.
“If we don’t have something in place, we’re going to have mass confusion,” he said.
The 2014 farm bill allowed states to run hemp pilot projects. The 2018 bill legalized hemp as a crop. Minnesota has run a pilot project for five years.
Cortilet said his department is in constant contact with law enforcement to verify growers who have a state permit and help differentiate between hemp and marijuana, which requires the plant be sent to a state laboratory.
Keeping hemp straight from marijuana is one challenge for law enforcement. Price said he’s also worried about distracting officers from other priorities such as cracking down on methamphetamine.
At the same time, most were in agreement that the state must do something to address hemp within its borders, even if the crop is just passing through as part of interstate commerce. Last month, the state charged a driver carrying hemp through South Dakota from Colorado on the way to a processing company in Minneapolis.
It’s best to be proactive, according to Lesmeister.
He urges farmers who think they’d like to try their hand at hemp to put a lot of research in early on. Finding a processor or someone to buy the crop is a major hurdle.
“We’ll get the law in place, but at the end of the day, it’s you guys out there that are going to be growing it and producing it,” he said.
Other factors make it a risky investment. The cost of hemp seed is comparable to the current cost of corn, Qualm said. No chemicals are labeled for hemp, he added, and crop insurance is not an option – though North Dakota officials are talking about ways to make it work.
“It’s a fledgling industry,” Qualm said.
He supports hemp as an alternative crop with thousands of end uses.
“It’s not the golden parachute people think it is for farmers, but it gives us another option,” he said.