Those of you who have been following the 2019-2020 North Carolina legislative session have heard the controversy over the 2019 Farm Act, and specifically the issue over smokable hemp and whether it should be legal. Words like hemp and marijuana, and CBD and THC are constantly used during discussion of this hot button issue, and it is important to understand the distinct differences between these terms.
To help understand North Carolina’s growing hemp industry, and to unpack these many terms, NC Family Communications Director Traci DeVette Griggs talks to NC Family President John Rustin and Director of Community Impact and Counsel Jere Royall on this week’s episode of the Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast.
“THC is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that causes people to become high,” explains Royall. “Legal hemp has 3/10 of 1 percent level of THC or less. The THC level in marijuana in contrast, has gone from about 2 percent a little over 50 years ago, up to 30 percent, or even 65 percent, today.”
The controversy over the 2019 Farm Act began after it was discovered that 25 to 40 percent of the hemp market was smokable hemp. “We all of a sudden discovered that law enforcement was faced with the very significant problem of being able to distinguish between smokable hemp and marijuana,” continues Royall. “They look the same and smell the same.”
If passed, the 2019 Farm Act includes a provision that would soon make smokable hemp illegal in North Carolina. This provision is supported by law enforcement, adds Rustin, because as the law currently stands, an individual arrested for marijuana possession could have “the initial arrest and any other legal matters [brought] forth based on that initial arrest thrown out if that individual claims, and somehow proves to the court, that they were in possession of smokable hemp instead of marijuana.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear John Rustin and Jere Royall further unpack the many controversies surrounding marijuana, hemp, and the 2019 Farm Act.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Hemp and marijuana are sure to be up for discussion in North Carolina again this year, especially in relation to North Carolina’s Farm Act. The differences and similarities, and the laws surrounding hemp and marijuana can be rather confusing, but we hope to clear up some of that confusion for you today. I’m pleased to welcome two guests that you know well—John Rustin, President of NC Family, and Jere Royall, our Director of Community Impact and Counsel. Both John and Jere serve as lobbyists down at the North Carolina General Assembly and speak out on behalf of North Carolina families on a daily basis.
John and Jere, it’s great to have you both on the show this week.
JOHN RUSTIN: Thanks Traci, good to be here.
JERE ROYALL: Good to be with you.
TRACI GRIGGS: Let’s start with terminology. People use the term cannabis synonymously with marijuana sometimes, but cannabis should actually be used to describe marijuana and hemp. Then we throw in terms like CBD and THC and we can get really confused, so why don’t you start by clearing that up for us.
JOHN RUSTIN: Well, sure Traci, thank you. This can be very confusing because there is a lot of misconception about the differences between marijuana and hemp, CBD and THC, and other terminology that we deal with in this whole arena. One thing I do want to mention at the outset of this program is that the North Carolina Family Policy Council had a feature article in a recent edition of our magazine, Family North Carolina, that really helps to unpack a lot of these issues. Of course we’ll be talking about that a good bit in this program today. Our listeners can reference that magazine on our website at ncfamily.org, and I would encourage them to do that because in addition to our discussion today, there’s a lot of great information there.
And with that, Jere Royal is our resident expert on this issue. He has been studying it a lot and has been talking with legislators and others about it quite a bit. So Jere, why don’t you help our listeners understand more specifically the differences between marijuana and hemp, and THC and CBD, and all of these terms.
JERE ROYALL: Thank you John, for the encouragement. The distinctions that are important to make in really understanding the issue are to look at each of them separately. Hemp and marijuana are in the same plant family—cannabis. They look and smell the same and they both contain the ingredients THC and CBD. The THC level is the important distinguishing characteristic between the two. THC is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that causes people to become high. Legal hemp has three tenths of 1 percent level of THC or less. The THC level in marijuana in contrast, has gone from about 2 percent a little over 50 years ago, up to 30 percent, or even 65 percent, today. The other significant ingredient in these plants is CBD, which exists in low levels in marijuana and high levels in hemp.
TRACI GRIGGS: Jere, talk a little bit about what the federal law says related to hemp and marijuana.
JERE ROYALL: The federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act. That’s based on three factors: 1, its high potential for abuse; 2, it has no currently acceptable medical use and treatment in the United States; and 3, there’s a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug, or other substance, under medical supervision. The AMA and the FDA both do not support legalization of marijuana—not even medical marijuana—but they do support continuing research on possible medical benefits. The FDA has approved one CBD product for epilepsy, and that’s under a doctor’s prescription.
TRACI GRIGGS: Okay. Well John, North Carolina lawmakers in recent years have addressed the topic of growing hemp in North Carolina. What did they do?
JOHN RUSTIN: Traci, this is a great question and I think something that’s important for our listeners to understand. Back in 2015 the legislature passed a bill that authorized and initiated the industrial hemp industry in our state. It was understood at the time that this industrial hemp would be growing plants that were consistent with the restrictions in the federal law that Jere just described—about the permissible level of THC in these plants—but that the industry that was growing these plants would utilize them to derive hemp fibers that would be used in rope and other fabrics, and things of that nature. And that was really what was contemplated, that “Hey, this might be a new possibility for a crop in the state that would not be particularly problematic.”
But there was discussion at the time that I recall, in sitting in these committee meetings and hearing. It was the debate that the hemp plant and the marijuana plants—being in the same family as Jere mentioned—look almost identical and smell and appear almost identical to each other. One of the questions that I recall that was asked in a committee discussion about this was, “If they’re so similar, what is going to keep people from smoking the hemp plant?” And the response that was put forth at the time was that if you attempted to smoke hemp, it would actually make you physically ill. And so the perception that folks were left with was that there were very different and important distinctions between these two plants, and this industrial hemp industry would be authorized to grow fibrous plants that would be useful for a lot of different things, but never contemplated that smokable hemp, or some of these other products that we’re seeing come on the market now, would even be a possibility. But also at the same time, Jere, there were some other proposals that were moving through the legislature dealing with what was referred to at the time as hemp extract, or CBD. So why don’t you talk a little bit about that too, because that was happening around the same time as the approval of this industrial hemp industry in North Carolina.
JERE ROYALL: Thank you John. I think back in 2014, the legislature passed a bill allowing for a pilot study for the use of hemp extract in cases of epilepsy with children. And at that point in time, one of the members of the house, Representative Fulgham, was a neurologist who was supportive of this very narrow pilot study for the use of hemp extract. He was not in favor of legalization of medical marijuana, but said that this hemp extract was a possible treatment that may be helpful. The next year in 2015, the legislature came back and did away with the pilot study requirement and allowed for the use of this epilepsy treatment of hemp extract under the care of a doctor. So that was kind of the medical picture that we had about hemp. And then in addition to that, as John described, we had the description of industrial hemp, which again everybody was talking about, thinking about, in terms of rope, fabric, etc. There was absolutely no mention of CBD oil or smokable hemp. And now this year, it was the Farm Act for 2019—following up on federal legislation—which really opened the door for legal hemp to be grown, again going back to the three tenths of one percent or less of THC that would be legal in the United States to grow. But it all of a sudden included a new part of the picture that even the bill sponsors this past year mentioned they had not been aware of. What we found out as the discussion and debate continued was that smokable hemp itself made up anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of the market in North Carolina for hemp.
TRACI GRIGGS: And this, all of a sudden now is creating problems for us, isn’t it, because there’s some difficulty in distinguishing between the smokable hemp and marijuana?
JERE ROYALL: Right. We have seen this product rise in popularity and in growth for farmers, but then when smokable hemp became a vital part of the financial life of many farmers, we all of a sudden discovered that law enforcement was faced with the very significant problem of being able to distinguish between smokable hemp and marijuana. They look the same and smell the same, and that’s what really is the big issue now at the legislature, how to resolve the issue of law enforcement not being able to distinguish between smokable hemp and marijuana.
TRACI GRIGGS: And John, of course, the law enforcement officials in North Carolina have been very vocal about this issue. What are they saying on it?
JOHN RUSTIN: Well, the Sheriff’s Association, the Chiefs of Police, the district attorneys, and others, have come together and urged the General Assembly to ban smokable hemp in North Carolina as soon as possible. And the real issue there is that they essentially lose probable cause if they come up on say a car, and they smell what they believe to be marijuana—an illegal drug in North Carolina—and they make an arrest. In the midst of that arrest, they may find other illegal drugs, a cache of money or weapons or whatnot, but if the individual using the drug claims that it was smokable hemp and not marijuana, then that can cause real problems for law enforcement. And so the initial arrest and any other legal matters that they may bring forth based on that initial arrest, could all be thrown out by a judge if that individual claims, and somehow proves to the court, that they were in possession of smokable hemp instead of marijuana.
We’ve seen in states like Colorado that have legalized recreational marijuana use, that they’re having a significant increase in the number of traffic accidents from people driving while impaired, and just lots of different kinds of problems. And these are the types of things that have caused law enforcement agencies in North Carolina to come forward and express significant concerns about the continued legalization of smokable hemp and the implications that that has for, again, as they have said, the de facto legalization of marijuana. It’s not because they oppose marijuana just to oppose marijuana, but there are lots of good reasons for that opposition.
TRACI GRIGGS: Okay, good. So, Jere, do you want to just finish up by telling us what the current status is of the North Carolina Farm Act of 2019.
JERE ROYALL: This bill was debated literally for hours, for weeks and even months, because people wanted to try to find a good resolution to this. But it basically came down to the fact, as John mentioned, that from the law enforcement’s perspective—you had the district attorneys, the Sheriffs, the Police Chiefs, the State Bureau of Investigation—all saying that the unintended consequence upon passage of this bill is that marijuana will be legalized in North Carolina because law enforcement cannot distinguish between hemp and marijuana, and prosecutors could not prove the difference in court. So the main issue that was being debated was when to make smokable hemp illegal. They apparently have worked that out and what some of us are thinking and hoping will happen when the legislature comes back in mid-January, is that they would pass this legislation that would clarify that as of June of 2020, that smokable hemp would be illegal.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thank you Jere. We’re about out of time for this week. Before we go, you already mentioned John, at the beginning of the show where people can go to learn more about this topic, but do you want to reiterate where can they find out more?
JOHN RUSTIN: Sure Traci, well thank you again. We recently published a feature article in Family North Carolina magazine. That magazine is available for download for free on our website at ncfamily.org. I really would encourage folks to go and make use of that as a resource to help them understand these issues, but also to share with others.
TRACI GRIGGS: And further, if this is a topic that you’re interested in, we would also encourage you to sign up for email updates from NC Family, if you are not already receiving those, because there aren’t too many people that know more about this issue than John and Jere. And so if you really want to hear what’s going on, and you want to follow this, go ahead and sign up for those email updates at ncfamily.org.
Well, John Rustin and Jere Royall, thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters.