Kristopher Gupton, a thirty-one-year-old Appalachian State University student, co-owns High Country Herbs, a hemp farm in Caldwell County, with his wife, Heather Bryant. Until last year, they could only grow hemp as part of a research pilot program through ASU. It wasn’t very profitable. 

Then Congress passed the Farm Bill, and everything changed. 

In 1970, the U.S. government banned hemp production because it’s in the same family as marijuana. But the 2018 Farm Bill reclassified the plant as an agricultural commodity, permitted wide-scale cultivation, and allowed the sale of hemp-derived products across state lines. Though hemp doesn’t have enough THC to get you high, an increasingly popular variety does contain CBD, which is said to help with anxiety, insomnia, chronic pain, and other conditions.

Gupton and Bryant expanded their output with three climate-controlled greenhouses, and they expect to make as much as $98,000 per year from three acres of smokable hemp plants. 

“This is a legit industry now in America,” he says. “Let’s try to make some money and put it to good use.”

In 2017, before the Farm Bill, the U.S. hemp market was valued at $820 million, according to the Hemp Business Journal. The research firm Brightfield Group projects that the American CBD industry could reach $20 billion by 2022. 

There are now 1,324 licensed industrial hemp farmers in North Carolina, according to the N.C. Department of Agriculture. 

Hemp is a resilient plant that requires little water and few pesticides. And because the plants are so compatible, it could offer an off-ramp to tobacco farmers reeling from both steadily declining consumption and President Trump’s trade war

In 2017, North Carolina farmers exported $162 million in tobacco to China, the state’s biggest tobacco customer. By 2018, that had fallen to $4 million. In 2019, after China banned U.S. agricultural imports, it will likely be zero.

“I’ve never seen anything as exciting to the farmer as this advent of hemp,” says Larry Wooten, president of the N.C. Farm Bureau. 

But even as the state embraces this burgeoning industry, lawmakers’ lingering fears about marijuana might get in the way. 

Earlier this year, the General Assembly took up the North Carolina Farm Act, or Senate Bill 315, which, among other things, would give the state’s hemp industry a regulatory framework, turning a pilot program into a state agency, setting licensing guidelines, and requiring hemp farmers to be licensed. 

But it comes with a catch: SB 315 classifies smokable hemp—the kind Gupton has planted—as marijuana and bans it. 

That’s a big problem for farmers, says Marty Clemmons, president of the N.C. Industrial Hemp Association. Smokable hemp is a high-value element of the global CBD industry. Lawmakers, she adds, are “absolutely terrified that all cannabis is going to become legal in this country,” as it has recreationally in eleven states and Washington, D.C., and medicinally in twenty-two more, but not North Carolina.  

That’s not lawmakers’ official rationale. Instead, as the State Bureau of Investigation explained in a memo this spring, it’s that hemp flowers and marijuana look and smell alike, and there’s no field test to tell which is which. If law enforcement can’t tell the difference, that “defeats the previous basis for probable cause to seize items believed to be marijuana.”

“If smokable hemp is legal, it won’t be possible to enforce laws against marijuana,” says Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel of the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association. And when officers search for marijuana, they often come across harder drugs. 

“If smokable hemp is legal, it will prevent them from coming across these other drugs, because they won’t have probable cause to search the car,” Caldwell says. “Drug dealers will be able to use smokable hemp as a cover. If they get pulled over or the dogs are alerted, they can say it was just smokable hemp.”

Susanna Birdsong, senior policy counsel for the state ACLU, counters that classifying hemp as an illegal drug will only add to problems of mass incarceration and the over-policing of black and brown communities.  

North Carolina isn’t the only state grappling with this question, and it wouldn’t be the first to ban smokable hemp. Indiana is among several that have. But on September 13, a federal judge issued an injunction striking down that ban after industry groups filed a lawsuit arguing that the federal Farm Bill pre-empted the state’s law. 

If North Carolina’s smokable hemp ban becomes law, a lawsuit here is sure to follow, Clemmons says. 

The Indiana ruling effectively rendered North Carolina’s debate moot, SB 315 lead sponsor Senator Brent Jackson said in a press release last week, and the General Assembly should move on: “It is my belief that this [judicial] order has made clear that Congress and President Trump had every intention of legalizing all hemp products including smokable hemp throughout the United States.”

The Senate and House have gone back and forth on when the ban should go into effect. Under the Senate’s version of SB 315, it would start in December 2020 to give hemp farmers time to sell their existing supplies. The House originally wanted it to go into effect this December, but then settled on a compromise date, May 1, 2020, in the version it passed in August. 

SB 315 is now back in the Senate, where it has been referred to the Rules Committee. 

Comment on this story at

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.