Georgia House representatives passed a measure Thursday that would make it illegal to possess dry hemp, a substance produced from the cannabis plant, without a license or proper documentation.
Representative Tom McCall, Chairman of the Agricultural and Consumer Affairs Committee, confirmed via email that the bill had passed the House.
House Bill 847 comes after several counties in metro Atlanta decided to stop prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana charges, with law enforcement claiming it was too difficult to distinguish between marijuana and hemp.
While hemp is produced from the same plant as marijuana, the major difference is the level of THC, or the compound that provides marijuana users with a high. The federally defined THC level for hemp is less than 0.3 percent.
Hemp farming was legalized in Georgia just last year, after the passage of House Bill 213, or the Georgia Hemp Farming Act. Although this act legalized hemp farming, growers and processors are still required to have a license. Since then the Georgia Department of Agriculture has been working on regulations and requirements for licenses.
State representative Jimmy Pruett from the 149th district said that the main purpose of House Bill 847 is to help farmers in rural areas who are wanting to grow hemp.
“My goal was to try to find a product that the farmer’s of the state of Georgia could grow that would be more profitable than the things that they grow on an everyday basis and also give an opportunity to bring some industry that would create jobs in counties like mine that still have a six percent unemployment rate,” said Pruett.
Pruett explained that the bill will also require hemp farmers to have a partnership with processors.
“Obviously the processors need to be close to the farmers, so it’s like a hand in glove- it’s a perfect fit and it’s a perfect opportunity,” said Pruett.
But while HB 847 may assist farmers and producers, small business owners like Josh Garrison worry about the potential effects it could have on individuals who rely on hemp products.
Shortly after the passage of the Georgia Hemp Farming Act, Garrison opened the doors of Alpine Dispensary, his store in downtown Helen that offers a variety of hemp products imported from out of state.
Within a year, Garrison built a business that provides customers with products that can help alleviate pain, anxiety and other ailments. But if HB 847 passes, it could ultimately cost him his business by making it illegal for him to sell products like hot tea and the smokable flower to anyone who doesn’t have a license.
“Right now flower sales, being the loose bud and flower, is 42 percent of my direct sales,” said Garrison. “I could probably speculate and say it’s 60 percent of our sales on the indirect side…folks may come in to buy flower but we give them a sample of our topical pain salve and they try it out and like it and buy it as well.”
Garrison further explained that HB 847 will outlaw transportation of hemp and hemp products unless the transporter has forms of documentation explaining where the product came from. He said the latter violates the Federal Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 stating that states cannot limit the interstate commerce of hemp and referenced a recent example where an U.S. District Judge shot down a similar bill in Indiana.
Garrison said he especially takes issue with how the bill will allow law enforcement to search and to seize products from someone based on pure suspicion.
“So [if] you roll your window down and they smell hemp flower or they smell tea that you’re drinking on your way to work and it smells like cannabis they want the right to search and seize your property,” said Garrison.
Garrison doesn’t just worry for himself and his business, but also for the well-being of his employees and customers who have benefited from the products. One of those is Corporal Todd Love, a former Marine who lost three limbs to an IED in Afghanistan. Love said hemp has played a huge role in helping him get to a better place in life.
“[Hemp] helps me to get calm and to stay calm, it gets rid of my anxiety and it helps me just be myself more without having to get high,” said Love. “I want to be able to continue to use hemp to help me live my life to the fullest and I wanna see other people continue to do that as well without the worry of being arrested for something so trivial.”
But from an enforcement standpoint, Lieutenant Don Scalia with the Hall County Multi Agency Narcotics squad said that he more often sees a suspect trying to claim their illegal marijuana as a legal amount of hemp.
“No, we’re not really concerned about it at all. It’s as easy as telling the difference between grape juice and wine, hemp and marijuana. You can’t call one the other, you’re just going to look silly,” said Scalia.
For this reason, Scalia said that the bill does not have much of an impact on how the agency plans to pursue cases.
Scalia said there are currently three tests in use that can differentiate between hemp and marijuana, with a fourth on the way to make the process even easier.
House Bill 847 will have to pass the Georgia Senate before it can reach Governor Brian Kemp for potential signing into law. A link to the full proposed bill with specifics can be found here.