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Our Opinion: Don’t hobble hemp over shoddy science in law enforcement

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State lawmakers might hamstring North Carolina’s ascendant hemp farming industry because police can’t yet reliably tell the difference between hemp and marijuana.

The 2019 farm bill has been amended to ban the manufacture, sale and possession of smokable hemp following a late-May memo from the State Bureau of Investigation warning that the newly legal product is indistinguishable from its still outlawed cannabis cousin.

President Trump signed a bill last fall that rescinded a federal ban on hemp cultivation, making the plant legal to grow and possess nationwide where state-level legislation doesn’t prohibit it. The N.C. General Assembly, which had already allowed a hemp pilot program, is working to establish a regulatory framework.

The working draft of Senate Bill 315 now prohibits smokable hemp, defined as “hemp buds, hemp flowers, whole or ground raw hemp plant material, hemp cigars and hemp cigarettes.” Law enforcement groups lobbied for the change, and farmers are lobbying against it.

“Hemp and marijuana look the same and have the same odor, both unburned and burned,” the SBI memo states. “This makes it impossible for law enforcement to use the appearance of marijuana or the odor of marijuana to develop probable cause for arrest, seizure of the item or probable cause for a search warrant.”

Why is smokable hemp an issue? The plant is grown not only for fibers used to make rope and paper; increasingly, it’s being cultivated for CBD — a non-intoxicating compound with some therapeutic properties. CBD oil can be consumed as a tincture or in capsules, but smoking hemp buds delivers the cannabidiol to the bloodstream faster. Those who use CBD medicinally say that matters.

While the marketing has outpaced the science and some advocates tout CBD as a cure-all, there is peer-reviewed research showing it reduces seizures for child epilepsy sufferers and combats insomnia. Dr. Peter Grinspoon of Harvard Medical School writes that more study is needed to declare it an effective treatment for chronic pain. However, the compound is not harmful and can’t be abused.

Hemp is not psychoactive, but it does contain trace amounts of THC — not enough to get anyone high, but enough to trigger a false positive in marijuana field tests.

About those tests: Police use reagents, or compounds known to react with specific chemicals, to detect the presence of drugs including marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. An acidic solution is supposed to turn blue, for example, when it comes into contact with cocaine. Trouble is, non-narcotic substances can and do produce similar reactions.

Perhaps the most infamous case occurred in December 2015 when a Florida driver was arrested because a test kit mistook a couple globs of Krispy Kreme doughnut glaze for meth. After laboratory testing cleared the hapless motorist, he received a $37,500 settlement for the indignity he endured.

“Every year at least 100,000 people nationwide plead guilty to drug-possession charges that rely on field-test results as evidence,” a July 2016 New York Times Magazine story reported. “At that volume, even the most modest of error rates could produce thousands of wrongful convictions.”

Field test results aren’t admissible in court — to secure a drug conviction when a defendant goes to trial, evidence is sent to an accredited lab. The roadside tests are a high school chemistry experiment at best and junk science at worst.

Instead of banning non-narcotic plant products because test kits can’t distinguish between hemp and pot, lawmakers should work to solve the larger problem of shoddy forensics on the front lines of law enforcement. After all, civil liberties watchdogs would be wise to argue that many of the current field tests — not just those for marijuana — fail to provide legitimate probable cause.

If scientists figured out how to split atoms, edit the human genome and clone sheep, surely they can engineer an accurate way for officers to identify common street drugs. The SBI has flagged a temporary technological shortcoming. That may be an excuse to outlaw harmless hemp, but it’s not a valid reason.

Growers say industrial hemp could add $100 million to the state’s economy. It could be transformative for distressed eastern North Carolina counties and lucrative for farmers long stymied by tobacco’s decline.

The General Assembly ought to leave smokable hemp alone. This cash crop holds vast promise for Tar Heel State agriculture and it’s time to step on the gas, not pump the brakes.