A tall green plant with pungent flowers has gotten a lot of attention in the North Carolina General Assembly these past couple of weeks.

Lawmakers have been busy making sure hemp and CBD are still legal after July 1, when the current law is set to expire. In the Senate, a Republican-backed bill to legalize medical marijuana passed with solid support.

One bill that just passed the General Assembly would automatically make marijuana legal if it's legalized federally. That legislation is now on the governor's desk.

With all this action around pot and its less potent sibling hemp, here’s a breakdown on what’s going on with pot and CBD in North Carolina.


What’s the difference between hemp and marijuana?

Marijuana and hemp are essentially the same plant, called cannabis. They look the same, they smell the same, but the difference is in the chemicals in the flower.

The difference is that hemp plants contain no more than 0.3 percent (by dry weight) of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive substance found in marijuana. By comparison, marijuana typically contains 5 to 20% THC.

"You can’t get high on hemp,” said Tom Melton, a now-retired professor with N.C. State Extension.

Marijuana is illegal in North Carolina. But growing industrial hemp has been legal in North Carolina since 2017.


What’s going on with hemp and CBD?

The part of the law that originally legalized industrial hemp in North Carolina is set to expire at the end of June.

The North Carolina Farm Act of 2022 would make hemp permanently legal, exempting it from the North Carolina Controlled Substances Act. That bill passed the Senate unanimously and will likely pass the House before the end of the month.

Hemp has also been removed from the federal list of controlled substances. Starting this year, hemp growers in North Carolina will be licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and will not need a state license.

CBD is extracted from the flower of industrial hemp and has turned into a big industry in North Carolina. People can even buy CBD products at a local Food Lion grocery store now. With the new North Carolina Farm Act, CBD will remain legal in the state.


What about legalizing marijuana?

There are 37 states around the country that have legalized either medical or recreational marijuana. It is still illegal in North Carolina, but there are two pieces of legislation from the General Assembly that could change that.

The one that has gotten the most attention is a bill legalizing medical marijuana. That bill passed the state Senate with bipartisan support and it’s now in the hands of the House.

The NC Compassionate Care Act, S711, sets up what the bill’s sponsors say are the tightest regulations in the country for medical marijuana. It would set up a regulatory structure to allow companies to grow marijuana and sell products through dispensaries to patients with a prescription.

Patients who can get a prescription for medicinal pot include people suffering from cancer,  HIV/AIDS, Crohn's disease, sickle cell anemia, Parkinson's disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, multiple sclerosis, cachexia or wasting syndrome, severe or persistent nausea or people who have a terminal illness and is at the end of their life.

Another bill that has not gotten as much attention is S448, Amendments to Schedule VI of the CSA. The bill, which passed through both chambers of the General Assembly, conforms state marijuana law to federal law. That means if Congress makes marijuana legal nationwide, it automatically becomes legal in North Carolina.

The General Assembly sent that bill to Gov. Roy Cooper for his signature Friday. The bill would become law as soon as the governor signs it.