Hemp farming bill passes that would empower police, raise fees

Anyone transporting hemp plants in Georgia would have to carry documentation or risk arrest, according to a bill the Georgia General Assembly passed Monday.

The state Senate voted 34-13 to approve the measure, which would set rules for Georgia's new hemp farming industry. The legislation, House Bill 847, now advances to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature or veto.

The legislation would require hemp farmers and processors to obtain licenses, allow hemp sales to out-of-state businesses and raise the annual processing fee to $50,000 a year, up from a $10,000 fee set last year. The fee for growing hemp would remain at $50 per acre, up to a $5,000 maximum.

"This is going to be a phenomenal industry for our state. This is a way to get it off the ground," said Sen. Tyler Harper, a Republican from Ocilla.

The legislation comes after the General Assembly approved hemp farming last year, allowing people to grow and manufacture the plant used to make CBD oil, a popular health product that’s currently imported to Georgia from other states.

By requiring documentation to transport hemp in Georgia, the bill would empower police when they can't tell the difference between legal hemp and illegal marijuana plants, which look similar but have different chemical compositions. Hemp contains less than 0.3% THC, the compound that gives marijuana users a high.

Police could bring marijuana charges if a field test shows that a green leafy substance is in fact an illegal drug, Rep. John Corbett, a Republican from Lake Park, said during a committee hearing last week. Even without a field test, transportation of hemp plants without appropriate paperwork could bring misdemeanor penalties — up to a year in jail and a $1,000 maximum fine.

Possession of CBD oil would continue to be allowed, without needing a license or documentation.

Opponents of the legislation said the $50,000 processing fee would shut too many people out of a hemp industry that could benefit hard-hit farmers, especially in South Georgia.

"You're squeezing them out and making it a much smaller industry for just a few people," Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, a Democrat from Dawson, said during last week's committee meeting. "That's not right. That's not fair."

But the fees are needed to pay for the government's cost of running the program, Harper said. Those costs include inspections, enforcement, training and equipment.

So far, the Georgia Department of Agriculture has approved licenses for nine hemp processors and 66 hemp growers, Harper said.