It’s only September, but we already have a major showdown lined up for this winter’s South Dakota legislative session.
The question is, why?
Why has Gov. Kristi Noem already announced that she intends to shoot down any industrial hemp legislation that makes it to her desk next session?
Frankly, it’s a big gamble on her part.
Noem successfully thwarted the passage of hemp legislation last session after a lot of support was displayed in Pierre for this potential new cash crop. The governor vetoed the bill that came from lawmakers, who then fell just short of overriding her veto.
Supporters of industrial hemp immediately set a goal of developing a new package for the 2020 session. There was also a summer study legislative group formed that is examining the issue to determine the best way forward. One member of the group noted that Noem recently sent 315 questions to them to be answered.
But now, the governor has already given HER answer. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece this week, she declared she will veto any hemp measure.
This sets up what will likely be one of the most intensely watched and fiercely waged legislative battles this winter.
It also creates an inexplicable war of political wills.
Industrial hemp was illegal in this country for decades after it was caught up in the anti-marijuana crusades of the 1930s. Hemp’s biggest crime is that it looks like the marijuana that is consumed to get high; hemp lacks enough tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) for that to happen.
But industrial hemp finally got the green light for production in the 2018 Farm Bill — which Noem, then a representative in Congress, supported.
Now, as governor, she wants nothing to do with hemp because, she asserts, it could compromise law enforcement’s fight against marijuana. She pointed to problems in telling hemp apart from pot, as well as determining the THC levels in suspect substances. In fact, she and her office are tying hemp and marijuana together at most every opportunity, which reflects the unfortunate mindset that handcuffed hemp production in this country for decades — and which, while in Congress, she voted to undo.
Meanwhile, 47 states have now embraced industrial hemp production, either through full-scale cultivation or limited testing. South Dakota, Montana and Idaho are the only holdouts. Which means they are behind the curve already in hemp development
Are there legitimate concerns? Probably.
But should they be deal breakers?
Forty-seven states don’t think so. In all likelihood, they know there are some gray areas of overlap, but those issues can be dealt with as those states work to develop a crop that could boost their agricultural economies and help this nation catch up with other hemp-growing countries, who are years ahead of us already.
Noem argues that hemp isn’t an economic “savior” for farmers, but even pro-hemp advocates aren’t saying it is. Instead, it’s a new possibility for revenue and for diversification at a time when the farming economy could really use a boost.
But again, the real intrigue may be why the governor has picked this issue to flex her political muscle.
She was able to scuttle the hemp drive last winter when it looked like the issue was going to roll through the statehouse, but the executive resistance came with some odd mechanics. In particular, there was a vote taken in the Senate which lawmakers supporting hemp thought they had won handily, only to learn that the motion had failed because it had been discreetly reclassified as revenue legislation that required a two-thirds super-majority to pass. Lesson learned, these lawmakers won’t let their guard down again this winter on such housekeeping matters.
So, Noem is picking a fight with a large majority of lawmakers who are regrouping and recruiting after last winter’s tough legislative loss to push the issue home.
And she’s picking it awfully early, even while an industrial hemp task force is still researching the matter.
House Majority Leader Lee Qualm, a Republican from Platte who is a staunch supporter of hemp, responded to Noem’s Journal declaration by saying he was “surprised she drew the line in the sand this early on.”
But he’s not backing down. “I don’t think we should wait any longer,” he said. “I think we need to get this on the books.”
Noem’s early opposition does indeed draw a line, but make no mistake, hemp advocates are going to be better prepared for the next round.
This will be a fascinating war to watch, with a lot at stake.
Follow @kelly_hertz on Twitter.