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Department of Agriculture hopes to pass bill to keep hemp regulations up-to-date

BISMARCK – State agriculture officials are backing HB 1045, a proposal to keep the state in line with any federal changes regarding the growing of hemp.

The bill includes changing the definition of hemp, leaving that to the department, as well as changes in hemp testing requirements.

Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said changing the definition allows for the department to mirror the federal law easily, especially as new rules are expected to come later this year.

“The problem was, our law that we had changed (in 2018), which we thought was going to mirror federal law, did not,” he said.

With testing, the department now has to accept the lowest bid, which could be from an unreputable testing site in a different state, Goehring said. “The lowest bid isn’t always the best one,” he said. “We ended up having to go to Kentucky for testing, which can take three to five days just to get the product there.”

Goehring said it is problematic when there is a capable facility in North Dakota.

Hemp growers are separated into two categories, grain and fiber, and cannabidiol (CBD). The increase in product varieties is among the reasons the department wants guidelines allowing easier testing, Goehring said.

“When we went out and tested a field most of the time it was one variety,” he said. “Now, we may walk into a facility but have nine different varieties of CBD extract.”

Numerous tests and retests were costing the department too much, which is why Goehring said the bill will help with the department’s budget.

The amended bill includes a provision for an emergency measure, which will allow the change to be effective immediately rather than waiting until Aug. 1.

Hemp farming has seen growth in North Dakota since the pilot program began in 2016, following the federal Agricultural Act of 2014.

With the passing of the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, hemp was removed as a Schedule I drug.

Although total acreage of hemp is down, Goehring said the number of licenses is up in North Dakota.

“It is reflecting (the shift) of grain and fiber producers to CBD producers,” he said. “CBD producers are going to be managing, in many cases, less than an acre.”

Goehring said the CBD variety is a newer product and has been more profitable for growers.

While he did not introduce the bill, David Monson, R-Osnabrock, is a longtime proponent of hemp growth in North Dakota and worked with Goehring on certain amendments to the bill.

“Almost every hemp bill since the beginning, I’ve introduced them,” he said.

Monson said when he heard U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, was introducing federal legislation that could change regulation on hemp, he wanted to make sure North Dakota would follow it.

“If (Paul) is successful, we want to make sure that we mirror what the (federal government) is doing,” he said. “We only meet once every two years and we are at a disadvantage, because the next time we would have our chance to get in line would be 2023.”

Monson said the testing amendment to the bill will be beneficial for the department of agriculture, as testing for the different varieties of CBD was costing the department a lot.

“I think (the bill) will be good for the whole hemp industry,” he said

Rep. Dennis Johnson, R-Devils Lake, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said this bill will help keep North Dakota within federal rules.

“We always have to keep in mind we are running a state program here, with still having the federal (rules),” he said.

Johnson said the bill will ensure the Department of Agriculture can continue to do its job while following federal regulations.

“I think (the department) is doing a good job, and we are just trying to give them the tools available to do a good job,” he said. A common misconception was that hemp, part of the cannabis family, was the same as marijuana, long considered by many to be a gateway drug.

Johnson said the public attitude toward hemp farming has changed since one of the first bills was introduced in 1999.

“We have seen this evolve over the years to where we could finally start talking about it,” he said. “The way it is overseen by the Agriculture Department, I feel it is just another commodity that farmers can grow.”

Johnson said the hemp market has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic while trying to get the crop into the marketplace.

“All movements of commerce, all these places are shut down that would use this product, so it is sitting in a warehouse or facility not getting distributed,” he said.

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