South Dakota's ongoing conversation about the possibility of legalizing industrial hemp took center stage Wednesday morning at a Dakotafest panel in Mitchell.
The majority of the discussion, like that around House Bill 1191 that was vetoed in March by Gov. Kristi Noem, centered around how hemp might be regulated if a program were to begin in South Dakota and whether the potential benefits to farmers outweigh the strain it could put on law enforcement.
"We've had the benefit, and will have the benefit, of relying on states like Minnesota, North Dakota, Kentucky, even Colorado — they're the ones that have been doing this for the past five years," said Rep. Oren Lesmeister, R-Parade, the primary sponsor of HB 1191. "We will learn from their mistakes. We'll take that into account. The issues that keep arising, I think we can deal with them. I think we'll be fine."
South Dakota is one of three states that does not allow hemp to be grown. The others are Idaho and Mississippi.
South Dakota House of Representatives Majority Leader Lee Qualm, R-Platte, said there are a number of benefits that South Dakotans could reap with legal hemp, both because of the plant's variety of uses after it's harvested and because of the economic effects it could have on the farmers who choose to plant it.
"This is an agricultural product that we're trying to deal with," he said. "Will it have social implications? Yeah, it probably will, because of the nature of the beast. But with that said, I don't think it's things that we can't overcome, that we can't deal with, that we can't work with."
Craig Price, secretary of the South Dakota Department of Public Safety, said legalizing hemp would put the state's law enforcement officers in a difficult position, as there is currently no technology that would allow them to distinguish hemp from marijuana without sending a sample to a lab and waiting for the results.
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Current law enforcement equipment can test for the presence of THC, but not the concentration, which is what differentiates hemp from marijuana. The two products come from the same plant, but a plant with less than 0.3% of THC is hemp, and anything above that percentage is considered marijuana.
In order to distinguish whether a product is hemp or marijuana, it has to be sent to a lab, where heat is applied to determine the substance's total THC potential. Both Price and Anthony Cortilet, who handles Minnesota's pilot hemp program as part of the state's department of agriculture, said that while that technology exists, it's extremely expensive and would not be practical to purchase for every officer conducting traffic stops.
Price also expressed concern that legalizing hemp could lead to the decriminalization of marijuana, either as a legislative stepping stone or by causing prosecutors to pursue fewer marijuana-related cases once they have to take the time to prove that a substance is marijuana and not hemp. Lesmeister and Qualm both said they would not support the decriminalization of medical or recreational marijuana.
"I think that we're in a very good position in South Dakota," Price said. "We've held a firm line where we haven't taken that step towards the legalization of marijuana, either recreational or medical, and I'm just really cautious on taking any steps which might lead towards that. I believe this could be one of those steps."
Cortilet said that although South Dakota is divided on the issue and has not legalized hemp to date, because the 2018 federal farm bill removed the substance from the federal list of controlled substances, South Dakota farmers could theoretically become licensed to grow hemp through the USDA rather than waiting for the state to claim jurisdiction.
"Either a state gets their act together and gets a plan and has jurisdiction over regulation, or USDA has that jurisdiction," Cortilet said.
Lesmeister said even though hemp is not legal in South Dakota, those who are interested in growing or processing it should begin doing their research.
"At the end of the day, we all have to sit down in the same room and work this out, because it's got to be good for everybody," he said. "I think we can get it done. I don't think we will go down a slippery slope."