Hemp or marijuana: Creating concern for local law enforcement, district attorney

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GREENEVILLE/NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – Hemp farming is a growing industry in the state of Tennessee that’s raising concern for some local law enforcement and a district attorney.

In 2015, The Tennessee Department of Agriculture began their hemp program.

Hemp comes from the same plant as marijuana – Cannabis Sativa.

Over .3% Tetrahydrocannabinol or “THC” is considered marijuana, which is illegal in Tennessee.

At or below .3%, “THC” is considered hemp.

According to the department of agriculture, there were 49 hemp grower licenses issued in 2015.

That number grew to 226 in 2018.

The most drastic growth was between 2018 and 2019 after the Farm Bill passed.

As of this year, there are more than 2,900 hemp grower licenses in the state.

News Channel 11 traveled to Nashville to talk with the department of agriculture on the hemp program four years in.

But here at home, we learned some local law enforcement and a district attorney are concerned about being able to tell the difference between the two plant products that look and smell similar.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Crime Lab was not able to measure the THC level in plant material until just a few weeks ago.

TBI acquired new testing equipment and dedicated a scientist to operate it.

Local law enforcement tells me that they don’t have the tools to tell the difference between hemp and marijuana and it’s a concern.

Sig is a 5-year-old Belgian Malinois K9 officer with the Greene County Sheriff’s Department trained to sniff out narcotics.

We were there as his partner Sergeant Matthew McCamey hid 3 grams of marijuana.

Sig easily found the marijuana, alerting Sgt. McCamey.

We also got the chance to hide hemp to see if Sig picks up on it. Sig easily found the hemp we hid.

“They’re going to hit on hemp just like they do marijuana,” Sgt. McCamey said.

Chief Deputy David Beverly with the Greene County Sheriff’s Department explains how trained officers test for drugs in the field.

“What do you have in your hand here?,” we asked. “This is a narcotics identification kit or nic kit that we use,” Beverly said.

They’ve also tested hemp in their field kits, and it came out positive. Beverly said the TBI told him hemp would come out positive in the test.

“We have no way of telling the difference between marijuana and hemp,” Beverly said.

The sheriff’s department is working with the department of agriculture to better educate their team on hemp as well as the growers in the area.

SEE ALSO: Va’s state labs developing new tests for hemp, marijuana as current methods fall short

The heart of Tennessee’s hemp program is at the Tennessee Department of Agriculture in Nashville where hemp testing is done in the fall season.

The department explains what they look for when testing hemp samples in the labs for their program.

“The main thing that we look for whenever we take samples is to make sure that it is hemp and not marijuana and we do that by testing the THC levels within the plant. Aslong as the plant has less than .3% THC, by law, it’s considered hemp and not marijuana,” Tennessee Department of Agriculture Public Information Officer Will Freeman said.

We asked what the main question is they get from law enforcement across the state on hemp.

“One question that we get from law enforcement is how to differentiate plant material if people are on the road and law enforcement need to find the difference between hemp and marijuana. That’s why we really push for our movement permits, and really suggest that anybody who is moving both living hemp, plant material, or finished post harvest plant material from hemp have their movement permit, that way it makes it a little bit easier on everybody,” Freeman said.

District Attorney General Dan Armstrong said differentiating between hemp and marijuana is a challenge.

“The legalization of hemp has caused some problems in prosecuting marijuana cases,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong said he has a recent case where samples were sent to a private lab for testing with the TBI’s guidance.

“The frustrating part about it is, is that there seem to have been no thought process put into the similarities between hemp and marijuana, and the fact that hemp can be abused,” Armstrong said.

He hopes more will be done to ensure hemp isn’t abused.

“What do you want to see done from this point forward? Well – I think hemp needs to be more regulated than it is. By who? By the state, it does have industrial uses that I’m not opposed to us pursuing, but we’ve got to be able to keep hemp from becoming the substitute for marijuana,” Armstrong said.

Limited testing for THC is now underway at the TBI’s Nashville Crime Lab, but only at the request of a district attorney.

“TBI needs to be funded to where we can make sure that we are prosecuting those who are breaking the law,” Armstrong said.

Freeman with the department of agriculture tells us they’re working with state and local law enforcement to educate further on hemp and ensure communication between the grower and police.

They provide GPS coordinates to law enforcement of where hemp is licensed to grow.

They also suggest anyone who is moving hemp to have a movement permit.

Despite the TBI now having the necessary equipment to do limited THC level testing, test kits used in the field are K9 officers still pick up on hemp as marijuana.

The sheriff’s office is concerned about having to make changes with their K9’s, a part of the team that is very expensive.

New rules set out by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture this week say that the application period for a license to grow hemp is now open year-round and hemp processors will no longer be required to register through TDA, among other changes.

The TBI tells us around 10,000 pieces of plant material are submitted to the crime lab for testing statewide every year.

Having one person and one instrument won’t be able to keep up with the demand but will allow testing in the short term for cases most in need.

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