Senate panel passes hemp bill despite big pressure from Noem

February 28, 2019 GMT

              South Dakota Highway Patrol official Rick Miller shows lawmakers evidence bags of hemp and marijuana during a committee hearing for a bill to legalize industrial hemp in Pierre, S.D., Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. The panel approved the measure despite heavy pressure from Gov. Kristi Noem. (AP Photo/James Nord)

              South Dakota Highway Patrol official Rick Miller shows lawmakers evidence bags of hemp and marijuana during a committee hearing for a bill to legalize industrial hemp in Pierre, S.D., Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. The panel approved the measure despite heavy pressure from Gov. Kristi Noem. (AP Photo/James Nord)

              South Dakota Highway Patrol official Rick Miller shows lawmakers evidence bags of hemp and marijuana during a committee hearing for a bill to legalize industrial hemp in Pierre, S.D., Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. The panel approved the measure despite heavy pressure from Gov. Kristi Noem. (AP Photo/James Nord)
South Dakota Highway Patrol official Rick Miller shows lawmakers evidence bags of hemp and marijuana during a committee hearing for a bill to legalize industrial hemp in Pierre, S.D., Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. The panel approved the measure despite heavy pressure from Gov. Kristi Noem. (AP Photo/James Nord)
South Dakota Highway Patrol official Rick Miller shows lawmakers evidence bags of hemp and marijuana during a committee hearing for a bill to legalize industrial hemp in Pierre, S.D., Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. The panel approved the measure despite heavy pressure from Gov. Kristi Noem. (AP Photo/James Nord)

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A South Dakota Senate panel approved a bill Thursday that would make it legal to grow industrial hemp, despite the governor’s assertion the state isn’t ready and her administration’s concern that it could be a step toward legalizing marijuana.

The Senate agriculture committee voted 7-2 to send the bill to the floor. If approved by the full chamber without any changes, the measure would go to Republican Gov. Kristi Noem, who has asked lawmakers not pass such a bill this year.

Craig Price, the Department of Public Safety secretary, said hemp and marijuana look alike and pointed out that both are forms of cannabis, though only marijuana could produce a high. He said officials believe allowing hemp cultivation would come with a multi-million dollar price tag and lead to another push to permit marijuana in South Dakota.

ADVERTISEMENT

Republican Sen. Jordan Youngberg, a co-sponsor, said that’s not the reason he proposed the measure. The 2018 federal farm bill legalized cultivation of industrial hemp nationally, and supporters say there’s an industry ready in South Dakota to start processing hemp products.

The bill’s main sponsor, Democratic Rep. Oren Lesmeister, said it would allow South Dakota farmers and ranchers to keep up with the demand and the expansion of the hemp industry. Two companies seeking to process hemp asked lawmakers to approve the bill.

“With ag being our No. 1 industry in the state, let’s give the people who choose to do so the chance to plant and grow and process it,” Lesmeister said.

The hearing was scheduled for earlier this month but the governor’s office sought a delay so that more information, including a fiscal analysis, could be put together for lawmakers. Price estimated that the measure could require his agency to spend more than $5 million on evidence storage, personnel, portable testing kits, possibly replacing detection dogs and a media campaign.

The committee vote underscores the rift between Noem and supportive legislators, including top Republicans, over legalizing hemp. Noem has put public pressure on lawmakers to scuttle the bill, and two of her advisers and the heads of the Health and Public Safety departments urged the committee to oppose it in an unusual show of force from the administration.

Their organized lobbying effort also included a Highway Patrol official showing committee members evidence bags of hemp and marijuana and a well-produced video of a drug detection dog in a state Capitol committee room flagging both to illustrate the difficulty of distinguishing between them for law enforcement. If the state’s more than 50 police service dogs had to be replaced, it would cost nearly $1 million, Price said.

ADVERTISEMENT

The governor was traveling Thursday for events in Sioux Falls and Rapid City, but Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden watched the hearing in the Capitol committee chamber. Noem has twice asked legislators to set aside the bill this session, but she hasn’t threatened to veto it. The House voted 65-2 in favor of the bill just days after she first asked.

Supporters say planting wouldn’t even happen until 2020 under the bill, which defines industrial hemp as containing no more than 0.3 percent THC. But Price cautioned that South Dakota isn’t ready to deal with the effects. He said law enforcement is already stretched thin, field tests used in traffic stops don’t show THC percentages and authorities are worried that hemp would be used to camouflage drug shipments.

Justin Smith, a lobbyist for a honey- and beeswax-product manufacturer pushing for the bill, said hemp will be transported through South Dakota as part of interstate commerce because the farm bill legalized it at the federal level.

“All of these issues are coming to South Dakota already now that the 2018 farm bill is law,” Smith said.

The measure would require prospective growers to get a Department of Agriculture license and pass state and federal background checks.

Applicants who have been convicted of a felony drug crime in the previous 10 years would be disqualified. The bill would allow Agriculture Department employees to enter areas where hemp is grown, stored and processed to take samples and perform inspections.