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March Mania

Hemp legalization in South Dakota barely hangs on after Noem's persistent opposition, failed Senate vote

Industrial hemp produces a dense stand of plants. The seeds are harvested and can be used for oil products. The fiber of the plant stalks is currently not harvested in North Dakota. John M. Steiner / Forum News Service

PIERRE, S.D. — A bill to legalize the growth and production of hemp in South Dakota is hanging on by a thread.

House Bill 1191 failed in the Senate Tuesday, March 5, by a 21-14 vote — just three votes shy of passing by the two-thirds majority margin. Senate President and Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden said the bill required a two-thirds vote because it established fees.

In a last-resort move to save the bill, House Majority Whip Sen. Jordan Youngberg, R-Madison, motioned to reconsider the bill. The Senate will take up the bill again on Wednesday, just one day before the 2019 session’s final deadline to pass bills out of both chambers.

The vote came after weeks of fierce opposition from Republican Gov. Kristi Noem’s administration. Noem has been vocal in her opposition to hemp legalization from the start, saying that South Dakota “isn’t ready” for the crop and that she is “100 percent convinced” that legalizing hemp is a step toward legalizing marijuana.

Hemp is not a drug. It is related to cannabis, a Schedule I controlled substance, but not the same. When ingested, hemp cannot get someone high.

After the House overwhelmingly approved HB 1191 in February, Noem’s administration pushed back harder: Representatives from her office, as well as the Departments of Public Safety, Health and Agriculture testified against the bill at a Feb. 28 legislative committee hearing. The Department of Public Safety showed legislators baggies of hemp bud and marijuana bud, asking them to spot the difference and insisting that police officers wouldn’t be able to.

HB 1191 prime sponsor Rep. Oren Lesmeister, D-Parade, said he has never seen an administration fight a bill so hard. He said he has attempted to work with Noem’s administration to address their concerns with licensing, product transport and hemp-derived supplements like CBD oil.

Asked why he thinks Noem is as opposed to the bill as she is, he replied, “uneducated.” He said the administration’s claims that hemp cannot be differentiated from marijuana are untrue and, “They just need to go on a hemp tour.”

Lesmeister said he and other proponents have done “everything we possibly can with all of the departments” in an attempt to appease the administration. An amendment to the bill essentially rewrote it to the administration's specifications, Lesmeister said, but a governor’s office staffer said the amended version wasn’t good enough, either.

“I think the governor just doesn’t want the bill. Period,” Lesmeister said. “No matter what we put in it, she’s not going to want the bill.”

Proponents of the bill have said that South Dakota will have to find a way to enforce hemp transport whether the state legalizes it or not. With hemp legal federally and in all of South Dakota’s neighboring states but Iowa, they argue that hemp will be transported through the state via the interstate.

“These products are going to be in our state and if we don’t pass this, we’re saying that every other state can move their product into our state except us — except South Dakota producers,” said Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert, D-Mission.

Congress’s 2018 farm bill, which Noem voted in favor of while still a U.S. representative, legalized hemp on the federal level. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 41 other states have legalized the growth and production of hemp.

Assistant Minority Leader Sen. Craig Kennedy, D-Yankton, said that South Dakota wouldn’t “reinvent the wheel” by legalizing hemp.

“Personally, I’m tired of South Dakota waiting until we’ve got 48 states ahead of us, or 49 states ahead of us, before we do anything,” he said in the debate. “We have farmers in South Dakota today who want to be able to try and take advantage of this new market.”