The South Dakota House properly ignored the “go slow” sign raised by Gov. Kristi Noem along the highway to industrial hemp production. Prudence is bad advice when chasing a checkered flag.

Noem advised tabling the matter after the House Agriculture and Natural Resources committee voted unanimously earlier this month to pass House Bill 1191, which would legalize the growth, production and processing of hemp in the state. In December, the Farm Bill legalized hemp production at the national level, initiating a race among farm states jostling to cash in.

Noem told legislators South Dakota wasn’t ready for the production of industrial hemp, and she raised concerns about enforcement, taxpayer costs and effects on public safety. State government may not be ready for hemp, but South Dakotans are, and they don’t want to be last across the line.

House Minority Whip Rep. Oren Lesmeister, D-Parade, the bill's sponsor, says there's an industry ready in South Dakota to start processing hemp products. If lawmakers wait until next year or later, he warned, the state would be so far behind that industries looking to locate in South Dakota wouldn’t come.

J.B. Meyer, president of A.H. Meyer & Sons in Winfred, said legalizing the crop would allow his business to process industrial hemp purchased from suppliers. Delaying the measure would cause the company to lose out on income, he said.

Jarrod Otta, plant manager for Glanbia Nutritionals in Sioux Falls, told the House committee the company has been contacted by two "very large customers" to process hemp protein. Otta said he couldn't disclose the companies but called them "large household names that you would all know."

"Every month we go by with the hemp laws written the way they are is a lost opportunity for our state," said Otta, noting the company has a facility built to process plant proteins. "Please help us legalize hemp so we can add another product to our portfolio and grow the plant here in this state."

House Bill 1191 contains safeguards to permit state regulation of hemp and prevent abuse. Growers must be licensed and pass background checks. State officials can obtain samples for testing. Only hemp strains that contain trace amounts of the active ingredient in marijuana would be allowed.

Hemp and marijuana are both cannabis plants but with important differences. They may look alike but one is pot and the other rope. Attempting to grow pot among hemp plants would result in cross-pollination and yield unsaleable marijuana, according to Canadian law enforcement.

South Dakota has a legitimate right to determine how it wants to regulate marijuana, but HB 1191 isn’t about marijuana. Other states — including those with strict marijuana restrictions — have already acted to permit hemp production. South Dakota can copy enforcement procedures working elsewhere.

And efforts to legalize hemp production didn’t show up out of nowhere. Initial efforts to roll back the limits on hemp production began with the 2014 Farm Bill. Farm producers suffering from an extended period of low commodity prices have since been clamoring to add another option to their portfolios. At a time when farm bankruptcies are increasing, South Dakota should offer its No. 1 industry every option available to guarantee success. Dragging its feet is not helpful.

Lesmeister told committee members hemp is unlikely to “save the family farm,” but it could be an economic driver for the state and “another tool in the toolbox for farmers” for a profitable crop that could aid in crop rotation.

The true market potential for hemp remains unknown. The global market in 2017 was estimated at nearly $4 billion, but it’s expected to continue growing over the next several decades. The plant can be used in about 25,000 different products. Its short- and long-strand fibers make everything from rope and canvas to cloth, paper and building materials. Hemp oils and extracts are used in cosmetics, soaps, plastics and lubricants.

In her state of the state address, Noem said she wanted to pursue the “next big thing.” Who knows? Maybe it’s hemp. We’ll never find out by continuing to play it safe.

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