Gov. Noem's veto branding iron

The veto branding iron crafted by Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden that Gov. Kristi Noem used for the first time when she vetoed a bill that would have legalized industrial hemp.

Gov. Kristi Noem doesn’t doubt the sincere intentions of misguided South Dakota lawmakers who championed a bill to legalize hemp.

Likewise, we assume she doesn’t doubt the intentions of eight in every 10 House legislators and six in every 10 senators who voted Monday to approve hemp farming. On Tuesday, the Senate fell four votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to overcome Noem’s veto.

Explaining herself, the governor said she has no doubts that the effort to normalize hemp is part of a larger strategy to undermine the enforcement of drug laws and make legalized marijuana inevitable. Still, it’s understandable why so many opposing lawmakers were led astray.

Possibly, they were influenced by Republican U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said hemp was poised to take off and has the potential to become a significant cash crop.

Perhaps it was the Republican majorities in the U.S. House and Senate —including Noem herself — which approved the 2018 Farm Bill, paving the way for legalized hemp.

Maybe it was the various levels of support shown in 41 states that have enacted hemp growing and production programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Possibly it was the February statement of South Dakota Rep. Dusty Johnson, who told Tri-State Neighbor: “I’m a pretty big prude when it comes to drug use, and hemp is a very different product than marijuana.” For the most part, he added, the country has reached a level of "educated comfort" about the once-illegal crop and people are ready to include hemp as an agricultural commodity.

Noem, however, said South Dakota must stand as an example for the rest of the country rather than simply go along with others.

Wyoming didn’t applaud the South Dakota governor’s independence and courage last week but snickered. Wyoming Republican state Rep. Bunky Loucks told the Journal a veto from Noem would mean less competition for the Wyoming hemp industry.

"Tell her I hope she vetoes it, because that would be good for Wyoming," he said. In Wyoming, a bill to allow industrial hemp passed the House 60-0, the Senate 26-3-1, and then the House again 56-3-1 after being amended in the Senate. Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican, last week signed it into law.

So many misguided but sincere individuals.

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Noem said in South Dakota it was mostly cannabis activists who voiced support for hemp. “An overwhelming number of contacts I have received in favor of this bill come from pro-marijuana activists,” she said in her veto message.

It must have been those same voices that swayed rural legislators in crackerbarrels, grain co-ops and in main street cafes across South Dakota. It must have been those voices that also influenced Rapid City’s conservative delegation to support industrial hemp.

Noem earlier complained it would be difficult for law enforcement officers to distinguish between marijuana and hemp. In North Dakota, which began a test program for hemp years ago, Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said, “That’s not even an issue.”

Noem’s real opposition to hemp appears connected to the trace amounts of THC — the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — that would be contained in widely available cannabidiol or CBD oil.

Under the South Dakota proposal, industrial hemp would have contained no more than 0.3 percent THC. An aging bottle of fruit juice in your refrigerator probably contains three times that concentration of alcohol. It’s a non-issue for drug abuse. The only problem it presents is for South Dakota’s unique-in-the-nation ingestion laws, which make it a felony to have any amount of THC in your bloodstream.

Cannabidiol, popularly known as CBD, is a chemical compound that can be extracted from hemp or marijuana for use in products that are often claimed to have therapeutic benefits. South Dakota’s hemp legislation would have legalized CBD at the state level, but its sale would still have been subject to FDA regulations.

As Noem explained: “It would create uncertainty for prosecution under our ingestion statute because the source of THC is placed in doubt when industrial hemp products that contain small amounts of THC, such as cannabidiol or CBD, are legalized. As governor, I will not leave it to our courts to interpret how this bill impacts our prohibition on the active ingredient in marijuana, and I do not believe the Legislature intended to complicate enforcement of our ingestion statute in this way.”

The legislative momentum in surrounding states makes it clear that hemp will be in South Dakota after 2020. The Farm Bill also makes clear: No state or tribe can stop legally produced hemp from being transported through their jurisdictions.

Our state is not yet ready for industrial hemp, Noem assures us. But apparently Wyoming, North Dakota, Montana and Minnesota are ready.

In this light, Noem’s veto seems a futile gesture. Still, we have no doubts about her sincere intentions.

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