South Dakota AG report arduous on hemp regardless of only one drug violation

“New attorney general, new view” is how Stewart Huntington summed up the annual South Dakota Hemp Report, which took a stiffer stance on the commodity this year.

The 2022 report filed on Nov. 30 by Attorney General Mark Vargo to Gov. Kristi Noem and Reed Holwegner, Director of the state Legislative Research Council, stated industrial hemp “had a clear effect on law enforcement’s ability to continue to prosecute illegal cases of marijuana and/or controlled substances.”

This is a clear distinction compared to reports from previous years, which were then filed by former Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg. However, Huntington, who is the Public Information Officer for the South Dakota Office of the Attorney General, told the Argus Leader on Monday that Vargo’s interpretation is admittedly harder on hemp than his predecessor’s.

“That’s not an unrealistic assessment,” Huntington said in response to a question on whether the report could be based on Vargo’s personal stance on hemp.

“It’s a different person interpreting the same data,” he said.

Vargo was appointed to the AG role in June 2022, when Noem chose the long-time attorney to replace Ravnsborg after he was impeached from office due to his involvement in the death of 55-year-old Joe Boever in September 2020.

Related: What’s next for marijuana in South Dakota after Initiated Measure 27 fails?

The bulk of Vargo’s argument – that hemp-related drug violations are becoming harder to prosecute – is because “new, more expensive testing” procedures are making it difficult for prosecutors to build their case, particularly for lower-level offenses.

“New state lab capacity should help with that, but there will still be the greater impact from the after-the-fact defense that the contraband was legal under the medical marijuana statute,” Vargo said in his statement.

The Argus Leader asked Huntington whether the number of cases, THC field testing resources and testing requirements had significantly changed since legislation first made growing the crop legal in the state in 2020. Huntington admitted field tests are still able to distinguish industrial hemp from marijuana and the number of hemp-related violations remains on-par – and relatively low – compared to previous years. He also said testing requirements had not changed since industrial hemp’s legalization.

The report also stated “medial [sic] marijuana has a greater impact on the prosecution of these cases then [sic] the early stages of the legalization of industrial hemp.”

Similar data, different attitude

In 2020, although some law enforcement offices reported difficulties in distinguishing between hemp and marijuana products after the former had been legalized that year, Ravnsborg wrote the presence of legal industrial hemp had “little effect” on prosecuting. Then, in 2021, the report stated that issues distinguishing hemp in the field from marijuana “apparently [had] been resolved.”

Previous reporting: Report: Fears whether hemp, CBD products would complicate drug laws haven’t materialized in SD

There have been few recorded incidents ever since industrial hemp’s legalization in the state: three in 2020, two in 2021, and one in 2022.

Last year’s report noted a violation stemming from a Washington resident who attempted to sell hemp cigarettes during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Authorities conducted a field test on the cigarettes, which tested at 3% THC, 10 times higher than the legal limit for industrial hemp. Law enforcement confiscated the individual’s cigarettes and “other controlled substances” as part of the investigation.

Another violation in 2021 involved a 1,640-pound shipment of industrial hemp from Oregon that was stopped by South Dakota authorities on the way to its destination in North Carolina. However, after the driver produced appropriate paperwork and permits from its home state and upon consulting Oregon officials and Ravnsborg, the delivery was allowed to proceed.

According to the latest report, Meade County was the source of the state’s single hemp-related violation this year, in which an individual was charged with smoking industrial hemp and driving under the influence. However, the industrial hemp charge was ultimately dropped.

The report comes at a time when South Dakota is anticipated to be one of the leading hemp growers in the nation come 2023, according to The Dakota Scout.

Dominik Dausch is the agriculture and environment reporter for the Argus Leader and editor of Farm Forum. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook @DomDNP and send news tips to ddausch@gannett.com.