RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – North Carolina is weeks away from finalizing rules regarding the growing of hemp.

Pat McCrory and agriculture commissioner Steve Troxler appointed an industrial hemp commission in the fall. The North Carolina Department of Agriculture is planning a pilot program to research the plant.

“Our role on the commission is to help develop a set of rules that can be used to help growers and universities determine if this is really a crop that North Carolina can grow and grow profitably,” chairman Tom Melton said.

“If they can, they can sell it, and it can be a great new crop for North Carolina. We don’t know that yet. Nobody really knows,” he said. “We’re just trying to set up some rules so farmers can try growing it legally, the universities can do a little research on it and find out if it’s something we want to expand.”

Melton is the Deputy Director of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service and State Program Leader for Agriculture and Natural Resources and Community & Rural Development Programs at North Carolina State University. He is joined on the commission by other agricultural scientists, farmers, the Cary Police chief, and Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page.

The team had three community forums in November and December to prepare a list of rules for accepting applications and issuing permits for people to grow hemp as part of the pilot program. On Thursday, about 80 people interested in the hemp industry attended a public forum to comment on the proposed rules.

Concerns include a requirement that applicants for licenses have proof of farming experience.

Others expressed opposition to a rule which denies permits to people convicted of felonies in the previous 10 years. Those people said hemp growing could be a job for ex-cons.

There were additional comments about people serving jail sentences for marijuana-related crimes while people in other parts of the state are making money legally through dispensaries.

Hemp is a similar plant to marijuana, but there’s little-to-no THC, which is the chemical that causes a high.

Hemp contains less than 0.3 percent THC, while marijuana contains 3 to 15 percent and can be grown with a higher content. Licensed plants will be tested for THC, and the commission chairman says it’s unlikely someone would legally grow hemp to try to hide marijuana.

“Any good marijuana grower would not want their crop inter-dispersed with industrial hemp, because they cross-pollinate, and so the industrial hemp will lower the THC in their marijuana, making it much lower value,” Melton said. “Anyone that tries smoking industrial hemp is just going to get a sore throat and a bad cough.”

Melton said there are many misconceptions about hemp. Jeff Cartonia and the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Association are trying to increase awareness of the plant’s properties and uses. He said his organization represents about 900 farmers and business with interests in growing hemp.

“People think back to the 60s and 70s, they think hemp, they think cannabis, they think marijuana, but this is an agricultural crop. This is food, this is fiber, this is not any type of any recreational (drug) thing,” Cartonia said.

He said hemp is an up-and-coming industry that can have a great economic stimulus and impact. Cartonia praised the Industrial Hemp Commission for work he described as amazing. He said coming up with a fair and well thought out set of rules and regulations in such a short period of time is nothing short of a miracle.

North Carolina farmers grew a lot of hemp for fiber production in the 1800s and early 1900s, before it was banned.

“It’s a crop that we haven’t grown here since the 1930s here in North Carolina. As the market develops we hope to learn more about how to cultivate crops in North Carolina as a viable alternative for our farmers,” commission vice chairman Sandy Stewart said.

“We need to look at industrial as another crop, another opportunity for our North Carolina farmers. There’s not a single crop out there that is the end all be all for our farmers. Most of our farmers in North Carolina have diversified and they have a lot of interest,” he said.

“If we can learn how to grow it and we can develop those markets, it fits right into that diversified approach to farming.”

The commission will accept written comments about the rules through January 27 and will finalize it next month. Licenses are likely to be issued this spring.

Read the rules here.

Comment by contacting Christina Waggett, 1001 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-1001, email Christina.waggett@ncagr.gov