On Aug. 31 at the South Dakota State Fair in Huron, S.D., a large crowd gathered to listen to a panel of speakers discuss a hot topic in agriculture today — hemp. The panel was hosted by the South Dakota Farmers Union (SDFU).
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “The 2018 Farm Bill changed federal policy regarding industrial hemp, including the removal of hemp from the Controlled Substances Act and the consideration of hemp as an agricultural product. The bill legalized hemp under certain restrictions and expanded the definition of industrial hemp from the last 2014 Farm Bill.”
Despite these changes on the federal level, the future of hemp in South Dakota is murky, at best. During the state’s 2019 legislative session, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem vetoed a bill that would have legalized the cultivation of industrial hemp in the state. Later, a vote in the Senate to override her veto fell short by just a few votes.
The bill’s main sponsor, Democratic Representative Oren Lesmeister (D-Parade), as well as Representative Lee Qualm (R-Platte), both presented on the State Fair panel and discussed the results of an ongoing summer legislative study, which is examining ways the state can address potential roadblocks of legalization to allow producers to grow this crop.
“The summer study lis trying to answer some of the questions that maybe weren’t addressed in the first bill,” said Lesmeister. “Moving forward, we are going to try and write the best legislation we can. The biggest thing we are trying to do is get everybody comfortable with the bill and put everything on the table.”
“With our state’s business climate, South Dakota will be a very good place for producers and processors to operate,” added Qualm.
Qualm and Lesmeister argued that hemp could be a viable option for fledgling producers failing to make ends meet growing corn and soybeans.
Currently, the United States imports $60 million of hemp each year. Research firm Cowen and Company estimates that hemp sales will reach upwards of $12-$16 billion in the U.S. by 2025.
As of 2019, there are 10 states where cannabis, including both marijuana and hemp, are legal for recreational and medicinal use. These states include Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.
However, proponents urge naysayers not to lump industrial hemp with marijuana. While hemp and marijuana both come from the cannabis plant, the difference is the THC levels, the psychoactive component. Industrial hemp can have no more than 0.3% THC content.
“Hemp is dual purpose,” said Lesmeister. “Hemp can be grown for oils, grains or fibers. There are many varieties, and currently, there are companies that are even developing seeds that would have virtually zero THC.”
Even with the distinction between marijuana and hemp, the challenge becomes distinguishing one from the other. South Dakota Secretary of Public Safety Craig Price sat on the panel to explain the issues law enforcement officers are facing as they grapple with the interstate commerce of hemp coming through South Dakota.
“If we were to approve hemp in South Dakota, it would make our drug laws unclear and harder to enforce,” said Price. “There is no way for officers to determine if it’s hemp or marijuana on a traffic stop. Our drug dogs are trained to detect cannabis, and if they can’t tell the difference, how do we expect our law enforcement officers to do so?”
Price estimates spot field tests would cost $20-25,000/unit. With 1,800 law enforcement officers in the state, in addition to replacing or training 150+ drug dogs in South Dakota, “That’s a pretty hefty bill,” he said.
Price added, “When people say they are in favor of legalizing industrial hemp, I want them to know what they are advocating for. Over the years, I’ve investigated hundreds of marijuana cases and supervised thousands more, and I can tell you that when start using illegal drugs, they typically start with marijuana. As a career law enforcement officer, I’ve seen the damage marijuana and other illicit drugs can do to families and children. This is something we need to t think about seriously, not just from an agricultural perspective, but also from a health and public safety perspective.”
A critic from the crowd cited Price’s statements as “fear mongering,” and said, “A grower will be traveling with bales not baggies.”
Yet, the muddy waters of legalized hemp has made it challenging for South Dakota’s law enforcement officers. In July, an arrest was made as a grower traveled with hemp from Colorado on the way to a processor in Minnesota.
“I’m not in favor of medical or recreational marijuana,” said Qualm. “I don’t believe we are ini the same realm when we are talking about hemp. I appreciate the concerns, but I think we can work through it. In my book, if you’re growing hemp, you have to have a permit to do so. If you’re traveling with hemp and don’t have your permit, then you are in violation of the law. Simple as that.”
“This is an unusual product, but the agricultural industry is facing unusual times, as well,” added panelist Doug Sombke, Conde farmer and SDFU president. “The state is doing a good job of vetting how to get there, but we may be being a little overly cautious on this issue. Legalizing the growing of industrial hemp has been part of SDFU’s policy since 2018, because our family farmers and ranchers need new opportunities. And industrial hemp is a new, potentially high-value opportunity.”
Lesmeister urged interested producers to seek permits through the federal government. Ready or not, marijuana is coming to South Dakota. The state’s Native American reservations are already making plans to pursue growing this project.
“Don’t wait for someone to hand you the information,” said Lesmeister, who cited the potential for farmers to make $1,000-14,000/acre growing hemp. ‘Don’t wait until legislation is passed. Farmers need to be doing their research today, because the minute a bill does pass legalizing industrial hemp, things will move quickly and growers need to be prepared.”
According to a USDA study, industrial hemp can be used as an ingredient in more than 17,000 products, including twine, hempcrete, clothing, cosmetics, cattle feed and granola bars, just to name a few.
While the state’s producers wait on word from their elected officials, South Dakota Department of Agriculture (SDDA) Secretary Kim Vanneman said on the panel, “The SDDA would have respective authority to promulgate rules, but until the rules come out, I can’t even begin to speculate on what the regulations might look like. We need clarification on what the guidance will be, and once we do, we’ll begin having discussions on where that will lead us.”