After the House Agriculture Committee in North Carolina was reassured that hemp grows differently from medical or recreational marijuana plants, it voted to approve the cultivation of industrial hemp. (Brent Lewis, The Denver Post)

North Carolina House gives prelim OK for industrial hemp research study

Lawmaker says state wants to be a leader in the hemp industry through related economic activities and employment opportunities; professor says the state university is eager to facilitate the programs

Updated June 14, 2016 at 2:20 p.m.

RALEIGH, N.C. — The North Carolina House has backed a plan paving the way for the state to join 28 others in the burgeoning marketplace for industrial hemp.

The House on Monday gave tentative approval to a bill allowing for state land grant universities to grow industrial hemp through pilot programs. Growers could be charged with a low-level felony for growing marijuana on property designated for hemp.

Industrial hemp is a variety of cannabis with low levels of the psychoactive THC chemical. It has high nutritional value and can be used to make biodegradable plastics, fuels, clothing and rope.

The bill builds on a law passed last year that legalized the crop and created the Industrial Hemp Commission. Federal law opened the door to industrial hemp research in 2014.

Previous reporting below:

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina lawmakers are pushing a proposal to authorize the cultivation of industrial hemp with the goal of allowing researchers to begin planting next spring.

The House Agriculture Committee approved a bill Thursday allowing for state land grant universities to grow hemp through pilot programs after lawmakers said they felt comfortable it would not increase marijuana manufacturing in the state.

Industrial hemp is a variety of cannabis with low levels of the psychoactive THC chemical. It has high nutritional value and can be used to make biodegradable plastics, fuels, clothing and rope.

Federal law opened the door to industrial hemp research in 2014, and 28 states have since enacted laws for similar research or pilot programs. Last year North Carolina legalized the crop and created the Industrial Hemp Commission.

This year’s proposal would expand the commission to nine members and allow selected growers through North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University to maintain plots, conduct seed research and explore the markets for hemp products.

Dr. Ron Heiniger, professor of crop science at North Carolina State University, said the school is eager to facilitate the programs.

“We feel very confident that the land grant universities here in North Carolina, above and beyond all the other land grant universities across the United States, can actually implement this plan in a responsible and productive manner with help to farmers of this state, as well as the citizens, and grow the economy in rural areas,” Heineger said.

Rep. Mark Brody, R-Union, assured the committee that hemp grows differently from medical or recreational marijuana plants and would be easily visible to law enforcement. Brody said marijuana growers are unlikely to mix the two because hemp plants can damage the quality and potency of marijuana plants.

Growers could be fined up to $2,500 for growing marijuana on property designated for hemp.

Brody said an industrial hemp crop will promote economic activities and employment opportunities on agricultural land that could otherwise be lost in North Carolina.

“It’s going to happen around the country. North Carolina would like to be a leader in that,” Brody said.