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South Dakota Ex-Cop Who Now Works In Medical Marijuana Questions State’s Enforcement Against Hemp Products



“When I was in law enforcement, we always said, ‘We don’t make the laws, we just enforce them. So why aren’t they enforcing the law?”

By John Hult, South Dakota Searchlight

Alan Welsh wasn’t just a cop. He was a Very Important Cop. The kind of cop who gets a legislative commemoration for an outstanding career upon retirement.

Now he grows marijuana for a living.

The shock of seeing Welsh in a room full of pot without a badge on his chest or a story to tell about a massive bust can hardly be overstated.

He served 28 years with the South Dakota Highway Patrol. For many of them, he was one of the top leaders for the patrol in the Sioux Falls region. From 2014 through his retirement in 2017, he was in charge of that region.

Regular news readers or viewers in the area heard from Welsh frequently. In 2012, for example, he was quoted in a story about a saturation patrol that led to the seizure of 295 pounds of marijuana.

Now he’s a partner in a Dakota Herb, a company with grow operations that produce that much pot on a regular basis.

There are times Welsh is shocked himself. Like during a recent tour of a Dakota Herb facility in Tea, when he walked into a room filled with clear plastic garbage bags of dried marijuana awaiting their turn to be processed into edibles and vapes.

“When I was in law enforcement, I’d have gone crazy seeing this,” Welsh said.

Evolution in thinking on cannabis

So how did Welsh go from an avowed enemy of the devil’s lettuce to a purveyor of pot for medical patients?

“I did my own research, I looked into it, and I kind of changed my mind,” he said.

It all began with his first post-policing gig. He was hired to manage security for a trucking company that services oil and gas industry players in North Dakota. It’s owned by Welsh’s longtime friend Darcy Johnson.

After a few years, the owner asked Welsh about pot. Voters in South Dakota were set to approve a measure legalizing medical marijuana, and Johnson saw an opportunity.

Welsh said no, but Johnson persisted. So Welsh started reading. There were the medical uses to consider, sure, but Welsh’s cannabis come-to-Jesus moment came by comparing its relative impact on public safety with that of alcohol.

“This product has a horrible reputation and stigma associated with it, and it’s all bullshit, in my opinion,” Welsh said.

As he walked through the multimillion-dollar grow building in Tea on June 20, Welsh offered a quote from actor-turned-marijuana-entrepreneur Jim Belushi to sum up his feelings.

“He said, ‘I used to be a bouncer, and I never broke up a fight between two potheads.’”

Welsh has a sheet of talking points he compiled under the heading “Fact: Marijuana is safer than alcohol.” Alcohol causes tens of thousands of deaths, whereas the Centers for Disease Control doesn’t even have a code for deaths caused by marijuana, it says.

It also cites peer-reviewed research on marijuana overdose deaths (essentially impossible), the health impacts of marijuana (alcohol is worse), addictive properties (alcohol worse again) as well as the higher risks with alcohol for injuries, traffic accidents, domestic violence and other violent crimes.

Welsh concluded that Dakota Herb was worth a shot. And the new gig came with the added bonus of being closer to home than the North Dakota security job.

It’s been smooth sailing ever since.

Sort of.

Welsh: Medical pot more trustworthy

Over the past year, Welsh has grown frustrated with state regulators and his former law enforcement colleagues’ response to the quasi-legal market for marijuana alternatives, which can cut into demand for medical marijuana.

With the 2018 farm bill, Congress legalized hemp and defined it as anything containing less than 0.3 percent delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) by dry weight. Delta-9 THC produces a high from consuming marijuana.

Soon after the bill’s passage, companies began to synthesize the hemp-derived chemical cousins of delta-9 THC, such as delta-8 and delta-10 THC, and began adding it to products like gummies and vapes. Those products ape the effects of marijuana, which is still federally illegal. You can also buy smokable hemp, sold as being below the federal THC threshold.

No one needs a medical marijuana card to buy the stuff, and it’s sold at smoke shops, gas stations and liquor stores all over South Dakota.

Some of those products have since been banned in several states. In South Dakota last winter, lawmakers passed House Bill 1125, which bans the creation or sale of any delta-8, delta-10 and THC-O products created through chemical modification. The law took effect last week.

The legislation was framed in part as a protective measure for the medical marijuana industry. If people can buy unregulated hemp products, lawmakers said, they can skip the fees and hassles of obtaining a medical card.

That’s a sentiment you’d think Welsh would appreciate, given what it takes to run a medical pot business in South Dakota.

By law, Dakota Herb’s products are tracked from seed to shelf and tested for quality and potency all along the way. There are cameras all over the Dakota Herb facility, even one aimed at the room where a machine extracts THC oil for use in vape pens and concentrated “dabs.”

That’s not true of the pot alternatives.

“The state has access to our camera system. The state has access to our registers. They see what we sold,” Welsh said. “These other places aren’t doing any of that.”

New law misses part of alternative market

But Welsh isn’t doing cartwheels over the new state law. It’s unclear how the state will approach enforcement, with officials citing the expense and difficulty of testing products for violations.

That’s not even Welsh’s issue. He points out that the new law doesn’t touch smokable hemp tagged with the term “THC-A.” THC-A becomes delta-9 THC when burned.

That means a smokable “hemp” flower can have a bunch of THC-A and remain legal, as long as the delta-9 THC level stays below the 0.3 percent federal threshold that distinguishes hemp from marijuana.

“It’s like me saying, ‘Here’s a bottle of vodka, but it’s not really vodka until you take the cap off and take a drink,” Welsh said.

By that THC measurement logic, a lot of the Dakota Herb crop could pass federal muster as hemp.

Most of the high any cannabis user feels is produced by unlocking THC-A through temperature, because there’s more of that substance in the unburned plant than there is pure delta-9 THC.

That’s true for Dakota Herb’s product. Which is why Chief Financial Officer Joe Stavig said it wouldn’t take much for the company to join the quasi-legal hemp market.

“All we’d have to do is cut the tags off,” Stavig said, referencing the tracking tags attached to each plant. “Cut off the tags, make a million dollars.”

Law enforcement response

Welsh and Stavig don’t plan to do that. Testing is about quality and safety, they say, but there’s more to it.

In May, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration issued a letter suggesting that THC-A should be counted in the total THC calculation for legal purposes. It’s factored into the total THC counts presented on websites that sell THC-A flower, after all—as a selling point.

That could happen in South Dakota, if the state made doing so a priority. Authorities in Minnesota have begun to factor in THC-A in their calculations, according to a letter from that state’s Office of Cannabis Management that references the DEA guidance.

Welsh and Stavig would prefer to be on the right side of the law if South Dakota follows suit.

But they have another bone to pick with the state, and it has nothing to do with chemistry.

South Dakota already bars the sale or possession of smokable hemp. That law makes no mention of THC by weight. As Welsh sees it, if a product is meant to be smoked, anyone selling it or smoking it is breaking that law. A violation of that law is a class 1 misdemeanor, on par with a possession of marijuana charge.

According to the Unified Judicial System, 39 people have been charged under the smokable hemp statute since its passage.

A few months ago, the smoke shop owners who opposed HB 1125 told lawmakers that “hundreds” of businesses would be impacted by the bill.

In other words, there are more stores selling hemp-derived products in South Dakota than people charged with a crime for smoking the hemp sold in them.

By contrast, nearly 1,800 people have been charged with felonies for possession of marijuana edibles or vapes since 2019 (possession of marijuana flower is a misdemeanor).

“When I was in law enforcement, we always said, ‘We don’t make the laws, we just enforce them,’” Welsh said. “So why aren’t they enforcing the law?”

He’s put that question to the Sioux Falls Police Department, Attorney General’s Office and Department of Health. The responses have basically been “because testing is hard,” Welsh said.

Welsh doesn’t buy it. Police don’t need a test to enforce a smokable hemp law that doesn’t consider THC content.

As a trooper, Welsh said responding to the public was part of his duty as a public servant. Regarding the hemp that hampers his business, Welsh the private citizen isn’t satisfied with what’s he’s been handed.

“I’m asking a simple question of all these people, and I can’t get one simple answer,” he said.

This story was first published by South Dakota Searchlight.

DEA Says ‘THCA Does Not Meet The Definition’ Of Legal Hemp As Congress Weighs Cannabinoid Recriminalization In Farm Bill

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