Hemp cultivation, video gambling regulation proposals advance

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April 15, 2019 - 5:23pm

The Legislature took a first step toward legalizing the growing and processing of hemp Monday, despite a few senators’ serious opposition. And a proposal to improve regulation of gambling devices advanced, despite concerns about whether it went too far, or not far enough.

The hemp debate centered on a proposal by Sen. Justin Wayne to legalize growing hemp in Nebraska. Wayne said it’s a market worth billions. “Hemp can be used for fabrics, yarns, rope, paper, insulation materials, drywall, animal bedding, industrial oils, body care products and many more,” he told his colleagues.

Sen. Tom Brandt, who’s made the bill his priority, said since Congress legalized hemp cultivation in last year’s farm bill, Nebraska risks getting left behind. “Kansas has already legalized the growth and sales of industrial hemp. Iowa and Missouri passed legislation to grow industrial hemp in 2018. Wyoming passed their legislation this year. In 2017 Montana had only 542 acres of hemp in production. Today they have over 22,000 acres in production. We are lagging behind our neighboring states, who are our competitors in this emerging market,” he said.

Hemp comes from the same plant species as marijuana, but is defined as containing less than 0.3 percent of THC, marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient. But that relationship prompted some senators to oppose the proposal.

Sen. John Lowe was one of them. Lowe cited South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s veto message regarding similar legislation in that state. Legalization “complicates law enforcement searches and provides a ready-made defense for those breaking our drug laws,” Noem said.

And Sen. Steve Erdman also cited Noem’s veto message, in which she said the “overwhelming” number of contacts she had received in favor of this bill come from the pro-marijuana people. “There is no question in my mind that normalizing hemp, like legalizing medical marijuana, is part a larger strategy to undermine enforcement of the drug laws and make legalized marijuana inevitable,” she said.

Lowe also predicted transporting legalized hemp would create problems for law enforcement and farmers. “The drug dogs will not be able to tell the difference between hemp and marijuana as it’s being transported across our state. They can’t tell the difference. If you’re taking a load of hemp across the state to a manufacturing place and a state patrolmen stops you and holds it for testing, it may take a week or a month for that to happen,” he predicted.

Wayne said that problem would be avoided by requirements under federal law. “When you transport, there is documentation you have to carry that is generated by the industry. So you’re not going to be driving a semi with bales of hemp without having documentation of that product,” he said.

After three hours of debate, senators voted 37-4 to give the bill first-round approval.

On gambling, the issue was Sen. Steve Lathrop’s proposal to change how the state handles certain video games that promise cash payoffs to winners. Lathrop said his goal was “to develop a process so we can make a determination in advance, instead of going out to a bar owner or the VFW or wherever these machines may be found and seizing them and doing this one machine at a time,” which he said was impractical.

The bill applies to video games that fall into a gray area as to whether they qualify as gambling devices. According to the Nebraska Supreme Court, the difference hinges on whether the games are predominantly games of chance, which are illegal, or games of skill.

Currently, Lathrop said, enforcing the prohibition on games of chance requires law enforcement to seize the machines and test them. His bill would require the games’ distributors to submit them ahead of time to the Department of Revenue for testing.

Sen. Mike Moser asked Lathrop about his intent. “Do you feel that your bill enables gambling or expands gambling?” Moser asked.

“No, it would limit it. There’s a whole class of things that are happening right now that are games of chance that this bill will eliminate,” Lathrop said.

Wayne told senators the bill could endanger organizations that use existing machines. “There are your constituents right now – VFWs are using these, churches are using these – who underneath this statute will be committing a crime,” he said.

Some senators wanted regulations in the bill tightened further. Sen. Joni Albrecht mentioned, even for games of skill, having age limits, preventing people from using credit cards, and limiting the number of machines per location.

Sen. Suzanne Geist supported that approach. “I really think we have to have some kind of age limit. Pickle cards have (an) age limit. Keno, lottery, all of that has an age limit. And I do stand as an opponent of gambling. But I do understand that some of these have been ruled as a game of skill. I do recognize our need to regulate,” she said.

Lathrop said he was willing to work on an amendment addressing age limits and credit card use before the next round of debate. Lawmakers then voted 34-0 to give the bill first round approval.




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