South Dakota lawmakers press for industrial hemp

Capitol News Bureau
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PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Governor Kristi Noem made clear Monday she isn’t backing off her opposition to legalizing industrial hemp in South Dakota.

And members of the Legislature’s committee studying the topic made just as clear they aren’t backing away from their support for a second try.

Noem’s office issued a news release 30 minutes before the panel began its second meeting.

The first-year governor revealed she had posed 315 questions — yes, you read that right, 315 — to several committee leaders prior to the first meeting July 11.

House Republican leader Lee Qualm of Platte said he decided he wouldn’t share her queries with the rest of the committee’s 11 members.

“I’m not happy with the questions,” Qualm explained Monday. “Not everybody on the committee has seen them.”

Except for this: The governor had included a link in the news release

“It is publicly available,” noted Senator Reynold Nesiba, a Sioux Falls Democrat.

After the meeting, Qualm told KELOLAND why he didn’t pass them along.

“I didn’t see the questions until the day of the meeting. I hadn’t been on my email and I didn’t have the opportunity to look at them. I think it had been sent out only a day or so before that,” Qualm, a rancher, said.

He took a long breath and continued.

“I saw no useful purpose in sending those questions out. There was a lot of duplication in the questions. I knew that a lot of things were going to be answered.

“Some of them we can’t answer until USDA comes up with some of their findings. FDA has to come up some of their stuff before they can be answered.

“So it wasn’t questions that were really relevant to where we are at, I didn’t feel at the time, so that’s why I didn’t put them out,” Qualm said.

USDA is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency developing national rules for the hemp program. FDA is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the federal agency that oversees what ingredients are and aren’t allowed for human consumption.

What remained unclear Monday was why Noem had voted for the bill with its hemp provision but then, months later as governor, used her veto power to block the Legislature from legalizing industrial hemp.

The panel heard testimony Monday directly from North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring and by telephone from Montana hemp program coordinator Andy Gray and Montana Agriculture Department director Ben Thomas.

None of them saw any roadblocks in their states.

Goehring said hemp produced by North Dakota farmers tended to mostly be used for seeds, while fiber wasn’t used except perhaps for livestock bedding.

In Montana, industrial hemp mostly will go to production of what’s known as CBD oil and related products that are becoming much more frequently found in stores and online markets.

Industrial hemp production has been allowed in North Dakota for several years under a research provision in the 2014 Farm Bill, while Montana licensed farmers for the first time this year and is still setting up its processor licensing system.

Noem sent three of her Cabinet members — Kim Vanneman from Agriculture, Kim Malsam-Rysdon from Health and Craig Price from Public Safety — as well as state Highway Patrol commander Rick Miller to testify as opponents Monday.

Their common theme was too many questions remain. Secretary Price repeated one of Noem’s veto points that legalizing industrial hemp would open the way for new attempts at legalizing marijuana.

The Legislature’s Executive Board authorized the committee and set its scope.

Some legislators on the committee pushed back against the Cabinet members’ arguments.

Representative Tim Goodwin, a Rapid City Republican, challenged Price, saying North Dakota’s agriculture commissioner was “180 degrees different” from Price in their portrayals.

“Help me with that,” Goodwin said. He added, “There’s somebody that isn’t telling us the truth.” Later Goodwin suggested the head of the North Dakota Highway Patrol should be invited to the committee’s next meeting.

Representative Shawn Bordeaux, D-Mission, said as a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe that he expected his tribal government to pursue growing industrial hemp regardless of state government’s decision next year.

Bordeaux and others said motorists would be hauling industrial hemp across South Dakota’s highways en route between states that allow its production and processing.

Price countered that he wasn’t aware of any tribal government official being in contact with any state government official about a tribe wanting to grow industrial hemp.

Goodwin responded a bit later: “They’re going to eventually come through South Dakota, no matter what we do.” He added, “I don’t think we’re any more ready than in March.” 

Price and Miller said the Highway Patrol’s drug-detection dogs can’t tell the difference between industrial hemp, which must have a THC level below 0.3 percent, and marijuana, which remains illegal nationwide. They said commercial testing could take months or years and would costs thousands of dollars per case.

Vanneman eventually acknowledged she hadn’t telephoned or spoken face to face to any other state’s head of agriculture about hemp. She said policy adviser Dani Hanson was her department’s most-knowledgeable person,

Hanson said she knew about some things mostly from listening to conversations among officials from other states, such as at a recent multi-state conference on hemp.

Health Secretary Malsam-Rysdon eventually said preliminary research indicated the state health laboratory in Pierre would need upward of $370,000 for a new machine able to determine levels of THC. She also would need two new full-time positions for employees to run it.   

Representative Nancy York, a Watertown Republican, supported the 2019 bill when it first came up for House debate. Then she voted against it after Senate amendments weakened it and ultimately sided with the governor by voting against the attempt to override Noem. York said Monday she hasn’t made up her mind.

What York said concerned her most was that industrial hemp’s most profitable use so far has been production of CBD oil for lotions and medicinal purposes. Noem in her veto message pointed out that businesses with commercial interests in CBD were the only hemp producer or processor with paid lobbyists at the 2019 session.

“We want to be really careful about how we put together the laws for farming hemp,” York said.

Representative Oren Lesmeister, a Parade Democrat, was prime sponsor of the 2019 bill. He serves on the study committee and said Monday’s meeting went “really well.”

“We finally got our departments that have their concerns in front of us and heard their concerns first-hand again. A lot of them are the same concerns we’ve heard for the last year, or two even, in this process. But it was nice to get them on the record what their concerns are,” the rancher said.

“The downfall of it is, they brought no resolutions, or no way to solve the concerns at this time,” he continued. He said officials from North Dakota and Montana didn’t have the same concerns.

“Hemp is here. Whether we’re legal in South Dakota or not, we’re transporting it through the state. It’s already happened. It will some more, the further it goes. I hope we have the opportunity to grow it and produce it and process it ourselves.”

The committee meets again at noon Central Monday, October 7. The goals for Qualm, Lesmeister and others are to have some draft legislation ready for discussion and that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will have issued its rules for industrial hemp producers and processors by then.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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