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Our Opinion: Hope for hemp, with a side order of state secrecy

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Lawmakers reversed course on a heavy-handed and unnecessary bid to ban smokable hemp this week, but they preserved a provision in the state’s 2019 farm bill that could cloak public records about farms and farmland under a veil of secrecy.

First, the good news: House Agriculture Committee Chairman Jimmy Dixon, R-Pender, abandoned his push to make the manufacture, sale and possession of hemp flowers illegal and introduced a Wednesday committee substitute restoring the version of Senate Bill 315 that passed its originating chamber.

The abrupt switch in a House Judiciary Committee meeting startled fellow high-ranking Republicans. Dixon had previously claimed smokable hemp could be a Trojan horse used to effectively decriminalize marijuana, citing law enforcement groups who say hemp and pot are indistinguishable from one another in police field tests.

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, asked Dixon if he’d changed his mind, according to N.C. Policy Watch’s account of the committee meeting.

“I’ve expressed my particular view very objectively throughout the process,” Dixon replied. “I encourage you to vote for the bill.”

Smokable hemp isn’t out of the woods yet. Another piece of legislation, Senate Bill 352, would add hemp flowers to the N.C. Controlled Substances Act. SB 352 was referred to the House Rules Committee, which often functions as a bill graveyard. Yet that panel’s powerful chairman, Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, could still revive the measure.

The former and now current version of SB 315 delays a smokable hemp ban until December 2020, which would allow hemp farmers to market and sell crops they’ve already planted and buys time for law enforcement to develop more sophisticated field tests that can distinguish between hemp and marijuana. If the testing issue is resolved, the ban may never go into effect.

Smokable hemp is a safe, lawful, non-addictive and non-psychoactive product used for the delivery of CBD, a compound with therapeutic benefits that does not produce the “high” of marijuana. The state has no business regulating it, let alone making it illegal.

Law enforcement groups say suspects caught with marijuana could pass it off as hemp, and they might skate if officers can’t prove otherwise. That’s disingenuous. While roadside tests can’t tell the cannabis cousins apart, cops could still seize the plant material and send it off for laboratory testing, which is a prerequisite for taking pot charges to trial anyway. If the lab confirms it’s marijuana, magistrates would issue arrest warrants.

Field tests for harder drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine are known to produce false positives, which is why they’re inadmissible in court. Yet police still use these questionable tests to make arrests and prosecutors aren’t dropping drug charges en masse. Opponents of smokable hemp are using scare tactics. Lawmakers shouldn’t fall for this new “reefer madness.”

Now, the bad news: The farm bill would make data farmers report to local water and soil conservation districts confidential, restricting access to the public and press. Information “concerning the agricultural operation, farming or conservation practices or the land itself” and “geospatial information otherwise maintained by the district about agricultural lands or operations” would become secret. Bill drafters have offered no justification for the change.

“In the spirit of transparency, the public needs to be aware of this information,” Rep. Rachel Hunt, D-Mecklenburg, said during a committee meeting, according to N.C. Policy Watch. “This is a violation of the sunshine law.” We agree.

Few North Carolinians have a good understanding of conservation districts’ role as it is. They’re run by local elected officials — pop quiz: Off the top of your head, who’s your soil and water commissioner? Making much of these agencies’ work secret would turn them into bureaucratic backwaters that operate in the dark without adequate public scrutiny.

Legislators should strike the unjustified confidentiality clause, resist calls to meddle with smokable hemp and pass a clean, bipartisan farm bill that Gov. Roy Cooper can sign.