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Commissioners approve body camera contract; take no action on hazard pay request

The Pitt County Board of Commissioners approved new body cameras for deputies but took no action on a request to give them COVID-19 hazard pay during its Monday meeting.

Pitt County Manager Scott Elliott recommended the commissioners delay action on the hazard pay request because of uncertainty over the county’s revenues and because numerous employees in other departments also qualify for hazard pay.

Sheriff Paula Dance said her finance officer briefly talked with Deputy County Manager/CFO Brian Barnett about the request before she decided to directly ask the commissioners for funding.

“Through this pandemic the sheriff’s office’s doors have never closed,” Dance said. “The detention center has remained open.”

Deputies have had a higher number of calls to answer and they have had to transport people “who were known to be positive with the virus” to area mental health facilities, she said.

Dance asked that her employees either receive $5,000 or 5 percent of their salary as hazard pay.

Other county employees are on the front lines of the pandemic, Dance said, but she has to look out for her employees.

“Our health care givers are front-line employees, I admit that and applaud them. But they get to be socially distant and prepare with their PPEs (personal protective equipment). Our officers don’t always get that,” Dance said.

The sheriff’s office has had one deputy test positive and fully recover from COVID-19, said Sgt. Lee Darnell, sheriff’s office spokesman.

He said “a couple” of deputies are quarantined right now awaiting test results.

Other deputies have exhibited symptoms, gone into isolation, and had their tests come back negative, he said.

“With no known virus sources with which to connect the dots within their personal environments, it is assumed that their frequent personal contact with citizens in various complex situations is the probable source of any infection for our deputies and detention officers,” Darnell said.

Federal CARES Act funding could fund the hazard pay, Dance said.

Elliott said the county would need $2.1 million to fund the $5,000 bonus and $1.1 million if the commissioners decided to give a bonus of 2.5 percent of employee pay.

He did not say how much money would be needed if the pay was 5 percent of existing salaries.

Not every sheriff’s office employee would receive hazard pay because positions like those in administration are considered to be risky jobs, Elliott said.

Pitt County received $3.2 million in CARES Act funding in the spring and recently learned it would give an additional $3.5 million of which $1.67 million must be divided among the county’s municipalities, Elliott said.

Most of the first CARE Act funding is paying for local testing. It also will be needed to possibly cover revenue losses related to reduced sales tax. He recommended waiting until at least December before weighing hazard pay funding.

“We are in the midst of a local, statewide and national recession,” Elliott said. “I am not trying to be insensitive to the request, I’m not saying don’t do this, just delay this until we see where we are going to land on our feet. I think we are sending the wrong message to the community that we are giving special hazard pay to our employees when so many people are unemployed.”

The commissioners unanimously voted to take no action on the raise. Commissioner Lauren White did not participate in Monday’s virtual meeting.

The board also unanimously approved a nearly $1.15 million, five-year contract with Axon Enterprise to supply hardware, technical assistance, licensing fees and video storage for a body camera system.

The $1.15 million body camera system will be funded with a one-time $100,000 grant plus revenues generated through the leasing of detention center bed space to house federal inmates.

Axon will be paid $229,657 during year one and $229,520 annually during years two through five.

Information about when the cameras will be deployed was unavailable.

Untapped harvest: Eastern N.C. farmers eye hemp as next great cash crop

Hemp, one of the most versatile plants on Earth, seems to be the answer to all the world’s woes, from replacing plastic, fiberglass and wood, to being a cure-all for a multitude of ailments — including insomnia, inflammation and seizures.

New hemp products, made from each part of the plant — seeds, roots, stalk and leaves — crop up daily on the national market. Many wonder if this leafy-green plant could be the miracle-crop eastern North Carolina farmers have been searching for, reviving an industry that has struggled for decades.

Farmers are in a cash crop drought as they have watched their remaining tobacco contacts dry up to a world market. Sage, another crop that promised to fill the void left by tobacco’s demise, has been usurped by a synthetic scent product due to hit the market in 2021.

Fourth-generation Bertie County farmer Kirk Copeland said at one time, he had pinned his hopes on sage because of the dwindling tobacco market. He and his brother, Sid, own Featherstone Farms.

“Due to the world’s economy, tobacco is shrinking in North Carolina. We used to grow 800 million pounds in the state. Then it was curtailed to 450 million. And in recent years it has dropped to 250 million,” said Copeland.

With America’s demand for hemp increasing — the United States is the No. 1 importer of hemp in the world — raising the crop seems to be an obvious solution.

Restricted potential

Cowen Inc., a New York investment banking firm that has a division dedicated to cannabis, recently projected the U.S. market for consumer products derived from hemp — from cosmetics to pharmaceuticals — could surpass $16 billion by 2025. That is not including the demand for hemp fiber.

But, according to the N.C. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that restricts hemp farming. More than 30 nations grow industrial hemp as an agricultural commodity for sale on the world market, the department reports, but in the U.S. production is strictly controlled.

Hemp production has only been allowed in North Carolina since the federal 2014 Farm Bill permitted research institutions and state agriculture departments to grow it under pilot programs. The state created a program in 2017 and gave farmers the chance to register for a license from the NCDA.

Today, hemp production is still under the rules of the pilot program and will continue to be at least until October. After that, farmers may have to register for licenses with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which entails different rules, complicating an already confusing process.

Last year, state legislators tried to include a broader regulatory structure for expanding industrial hemp production in the state 2019 Farm Bill, replacing the pilot program. The bill also would have banned smokable hemp — which lacks the concentration of a compound called THC that gives marijuana its high but reportedly delivers the benefits of CDB faster.

Paul Adams, manager of the state’s Industrial Hemp Program with NCDA said all hemp provisions were removed from the bill before it was finally passed in June.

Law enforcement officials hoped smokable hemp would be banned because they say the look and smell make it impossible to differentiate it from illegal marijuana in police actions.

Farmers who produce it say consumer demand for it is great. Outlawing it would remove a profitable commodity.

With no new hemp guidelines, the 2019 Farm Bill left farmers with more questions than answers for what might come next for smokable hemp and crops grown for CDB oil extraction and other uses.

Maze of uncertainty

During the May meeting of the N.C. Industrial Hemp Commission, Chief Daniel House told farmers, “Currently, the legal framework around hemp is not clear past Oct. 30, 2020.”

Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County Republican and chief Senate bill negotiator, said hemp [production] will continue to follow rules under the production pilot project.

“Retaining the pilot makes sense since federal rules that would expand production have been changing,” Jackson said.

As hemp continues to be an emerging industry, it has become tangled up in politics and restrictions.

Copeland and his brother are in their fourth season experimenting in hemp. He warns it is not for the faint of heart.

“The problem is you have government guidelines, then you have the state’s pilot program,” he said.

Not knowing what will happen after October is unsettling. If hemp becomes regulated by the USDA, it could mean a whole different set of rules and regulations.

“Its all questions,” Copeland said.

Changing laws are only one of the challenges farmers face raising hemp.

In an industry that remains largely unregulated, producers must weed through unscrupulous suppliers of seeds and plants as well as greedy processors, who take advantage of farmers eager to find an alternative to ever-shrinking profit margins.

In addition, growing the capricious crop can be a huge financial risk.

This year (2020), was the first year farmers in the state have been able to buy insurance for their hemp.

What’s old is new

Hemp growing in America may seem groundbreaking, but the crop is rooted in the history of early American soil. In the 1700s, laws required farmers in several colonies to grow the fibrous plant for use in making rope, ship sails and clothing.

Hemp continued to be grown here until the early 1940s when it was last produced for the World War II war effort.

The “Marihuana” Tax Act of 1937 made it illegal to grow hemp when it was lumped it together with its nefarious cousin, marijuana. Because they are visually indistinguishable, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and later the Drug Enforcement Administration, labeled both in the same drug category as heroin and LSD.

Hemp and marijuana stem from the same genus (cannabis sativa), but marijuana has been modified to produce high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis. The level of THC found in marijuana is usually 5 percent and higher.

Currently, hemp, in any form, is federally required to have less than 0.3 percent of THC.

The stigma of hemp being a drug persists to this day.

Martin County farmer William Manning said he had his reservations.

“I wouldn’t grow it for a long time,” he said. “But, I got to looking at it the good part of it — it helps people with seizures, among other things. It is a good product. I don’t know if the FDA is going to get in it and mess it up. If they classify it as a drug, then I don’t know what that will do.”

He said taking CBD oil (by dropper under his tongue) has replaced his need for Tylenol and Aleve for his aches and pains.

Copeland also had reservations.

“I wouldn’t even grown hemp until I researched it and realized this is a medical product,” he said. “I actually purchased several different products that were reputable for their oil to see if there was really a medicinal value.” He claims there most definitely was.

“I heard a story about a guy who couldn’t sleep at night because he had palsy. His medication would only carry him until about two or three in the morning when his shaking would wake him up. When he started taking CBD, he started getting a full night’s sleep. When you hear those kinds of stories, it adds to the credibility,” he said.

Currently, there is only one FDA-approved drug containing cannabidiol (CBD), Epidiolex, that’s approved for medical use to treat seizures caused by two forms of epilepsy: Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome.

Researchers at the NCDA agree hemp production in the state can be a viable option, but as the industry is just emerging, they urge a tremendous amount of caution.

Copeland agrees.

“We are on the very, very beginning of this,” he said. “We are the fledglings, I guess.”

Six VA employees test positive for COVID-19

Employees at the Greenville VA clinic were tested for COVID-19 on Monday after six workers tested positive for the virus.

The six were part of the administrative staff and shared an office space. They were not part of a care team and did not have direct patient engagement, said Yves-Marie Applewhite, Durham VA Healthcare System chief public officer.

Testing tents are available at the facility for veterans who have COVID symptoms. No patients have been tested as a result of the employee COVID cases, Applewhite said.

“We did do a mass testing at our Greenville VA facility,” Applewhite said. “We tested all employees upon entry (Monday) morning and that was really out of pure precaution because we did have a small cohort of employees who tested positive.”

North Carolina’s case count rose to 87,528 on Monday, up 1,827 from 85,701 on Sunday. Seven more people died raising the states death toll to 1,510.

An announcement is expected this week from Gov. Roy Cooper on re-opening plans for state schools. Cooper asked districts to prepare three re-opening plans that include options for in-person and fully remote learning.

In Pitt County there were 894 confirmed cases of COVID-19 up 18 from Thursday. The county’s death rate remained at nine.

Monday was the first day of free COVID-19 community testing, provided by the Pitt County Health Department, according to a news release from Pitt County spokesman Mike Emory.

Free COVID-19 community testing took place at J.H. Rose High School and Farmville Community Center, the release satated. At J.H. Rose, 280 tests were administered. An additional 160 tests were done in Farmville.

Testing today will be available at J.H. Rose and Bethel Elementary School from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and at the Health Department from 3-6 p.m.