- Associated Press - Sunday, January 31, 2016

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - Some South Dakota lawmakers are attempting to overcome perceptions about hemp’s family ties to marijuana to explore the economic potential of the crop with a bill patterned after North Dakota’s industrial hemp law.

Cultivation of the plant could be a force for economic development in South Dakota if misconceptions about hemp can be dispelled, said Republican Rep. Mike Verchio, the proposal’s main House sponsor. It’s scheduled to be heard in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources committee on Tuesday.

Verchio sees benefits from allowing cultivation beyond the producers who grow it. Hemp fields could feed manufacturing facilities to turn the plant into products ranging from mortar to fiberboard, he said.

“Industrial hemp is a farm crop, and it offers great benefits to industry,” said North American Industrial Hemp Council Chairman Erwin Sholts, who has promoted hemp for more than two decades.

The bill would allow people to apply to the state Department of Agriculture for a license to grow industrial hemp if they pass background checks. Earlier this month in North Dakota, state Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring chose three farming operations to test whether industrial hemp can be successfully grown in the state.

Hemp’s comeback got a foothold in the 2014 federal farm bill, which allows state agriculture departments to designate hemp pilot projects for research in states that have approved hemp growing. More than 20 states have removed barriers to its production, according to Vote Hemp, a group that advocates for the plant’s legal cultivation.

But advocates in South Dakota acknowledge they have difficult ground to till. Police and prosecutors aren’t expected to welcome the proposal, which Gov. Dennis Daugaard called “a distraction.”

Verchio has a pitch ready for lawmakers meant to quell fears that an intoxicating crop could be hidden among acreage of its industrial cousin. The South Dakota bill restricts the allowable content of THC - a main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana - for industrial hemp.

“It doesn’t take a real genius to figure out the difference between those two plants,” said Verchio, who plans to explain the distinctions to lawmakers.

“There could be nobody more against marijuana than me, but I’m thoroughly convinced that this is absolutely no threat as far as a psychotropic drug at all. It just isn’t there,” he added.

Attorney General Marty Jackley said he hasn’t yet taken a position on the measure.

Daugaard is against industrial hemp, and said he doubts its cultivation would amount to much economic activity.

“I think that the opportunity for that niche to enable profitable growing of hemp is very slim,” he said. “I think conversely the opportunity for dressing up recreational hemp as an industrial effort is much more likely.”

The domestic market for hemp products is growing, according to a 2015 report from the Congressional Research Service. The report found that hemp could be an economically viable alternative crop for some growers based on the existence of “small scale, but profitable, niche markets.”

Josh Hendrix is set to have 10 acres of industrial hemp this year on his family farm near Lexington, Kentucky. Right now, more research is necessary to figure out appropriate varieties of hemp to grow and to experiment with the best methods of cultivation, said Hendrix, who is president of the Kentucky Hemp Industry Association.

“We want to stumble, not fall,” he said.

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