Lawmakers working on a bill that would legalize hemp

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Some South Dakota lawmakers said Wednesday that they’re working on a bill for the 2020 legislative session that would pave the way for hemp to be grown in the state, putting them on a likely collision course with Gov. Kristi Noem.

Noem vetoed such legislation in March. Though the House successfully voted to override, lawmakers fell two votes short in the Senate. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans; Noem is also a Republican.

Rep. Oren Lesmeister, a Democrat from Parade, said he and a bipartisan group of lawmakers are working to craft a bill similar to the one vetoed. He said he’s “very confident” it would draw enough support to override another veto.

Supporters, in the meantime, are working to educate their colleagues on hemp and its uses.

“They see the difference between industrial hemp and marijuana,” Lesmeister said.

Sen. Rocky Blare, a Republican from Ideal who opposed the bill last year, said federal regulations for industrial hemp that the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last month helped convince him of the crop’s potential viability. But he said he’ll wait to see the bill before committing.

“If it’s good for farmers and good for South Dakota, then I’m absolutely for it,” he added.

South Dakota, Mississippi and Idaho are the only states that don’t allow hemp cultivation. Two Native American tribes in South Dakota have applied to the federal government for permits to grow industrial hemp.

Noem has argued that legalizing hemp is akin to legalizing marijuana because it is difficult for police officers to tell the difference. Hemp is allowed under federal law when it has less than 0.3% of THC, the component in marijuana that produces a high.

“Governor Noem continues to have conversations with legislators about industrial hemp and the impact legalization could have on public safety and law enforcement’s ability to enforce drug laws,” Noem’s spokeswoman, Kristin Wileman, said Wednesday in a written statement.

Blare isn’t persuaded by Noem’s argument. Though he staunchly opposes legalizing marijuana, he said hemp is different. Blare said a bill would need to regulate testing and transporting hemp to get his support, as well as make sure that farmers are responsible to keep their hemp crops under the federal limit for THC.

Noem has also argued it would cost too much and strain law enforcement to test hemp for THC levels.

Nearly all the lawmakers agreed that if hemp crops were allowed in South Dakota, farmers would have to proceed with caution in an unpredictable new market.

Senate Majority Whip Josh Klumb said hemp won’t be “a golden egg that saves everybody’s farm.” But the Mount Vernon Republican supports allowing it and thinks South Dakota farmers are missing out on opportunities the longer the state waits.

Hemp came up this week on a conference call hosted by U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, with a woman asking about hemp’s potential in textiles. That prompted Rounds to post an old photo on Facebook of his father working in a hemp field in Beadle County — a photo he said convinced him of its potential.

Rounds said South Dakotans grew hemp during World War II to be used for ropes on Navy boats.

“I personally don’t see a problem with at least trying it,” the senator said.