COLUMBIA — With little debate but many qualifications, a state Senate panel Thursday advanced a bill to allow the cultivation of hemp in South Carolina.
That’s industrial hemp, not marijuana.
The distinction is why qualifications came with nearly every statement in the Senate agriculture subcommittee meeting.
“This has nothing to do with legalizing marijuana,” was the opening statement of subcommittee chairman Sen. Yancey McGill, D-Williamsburg.
The bill, S.839, makes the difference clear.
Industrial hemp is genetically different from the hemp plants that produce the quality of tetrahydrocannabinol that gives marijuana its mind-altering properties. The S.C. legislation also would remove industrial hemp from the state’s current definition of marijuana.
To make the distinction even more clear, the bill introduced by state Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, includes a provision that specifically makes it illegal to try to hide marijuana plants among industrial hemp fields.
The fiber and seeds of industrial hemp can be used in a multitude of products, from fabrics to paper to edible seeds.
South Carolina isn’t on the cutting edge of hemp legalization.
Last year, the Kentucky legislature passed into law a proposal to allow industrial hemp farming in that state. Hemp was a major industry in Kentucky before the federal government criminalized the sale and use of marijuana in the 1930s.
The Kentucky legislation is much more detailed than the S.C. The Blue Grass State’s law includes provisions for registering, monitoring and testing of growers and their product by the Kentucky department of agriculture and state police.
Kentucky is one of 10 states that have approved some version of industrial hemp legislation. The others are California, Colorado, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia, according to the website stopthedrugwar.org. Legislation to legalize hemp also has been introduced in 11 other states, including South Carolina.
The S.C. Department of Agriculture didn’t offer any thoughts at Thursday’s committee meeting. A spokeswoman said the department isn’t ready to weigh in on the subject yet.
But Sen. McGill said farmers in the Pee Dee who have spoken with him are excited about the possibility of a new crop to help make up for income lost due to the drop in tobacco production in recent years.
One major sticking point in the launch of an industrial hemp industry in the state is the federal requirement that any new planting of the crop be approved by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, which has turned down such requests in the past.
Kentucky officials have argued such approval shouldn’t be required because of a policy change by the U.S. Department of Justice last August. That Justice Department said it will not oppose laws by individual states to allow production of marijuana. Also, the broad federal farm bill, recently approved by Congress, includes a provision allowing industrial hemp cultivation on a limited basis for research purposes.
State Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, a former 15th Circuit solicitor, said he called “exceedingly conservative” friends in law enforcement in Kentucky to see what concerns they have with the prospect of industrial hemp cultivation there. They told him they see no problems. “They satisfied whatever concerns I had,” Hembree said.
The subcommittee voted unanimously to move the bill on to the full Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. If approved there, it would go to the full Senate and, if successful, to the House.
The only person to address the subcommittee on the bill was Wayne Borders, president of the Columbia chapter of the national marijuana advocacy group NORML. Borders said the cultivation of industrial hemp is a billion-dollar-a-year industry, but the vast majority of industrial hemp products purchased in the United States are produced in Canada.
“You can go down to Rosewood Market or Earth Fare and buy hemp seeds, and they’re from Canada,” Borders said. “If South Carolina could get on this early, we could reap economic benefits.”
McGill said he will be on the opposite side of the argument from Borders and NORML on legalizing marijuana, but, he added, he thinks industrial hemp could have a place in the state’s agriculture economy.
While hemp wasn’t a major crop in the state before its criminalization, it was grown here and had been for centuries. According to “A History of Hemp,” by Robert A. Nelson, S.C. leaders in 1733 voted to pay a man named Richard Hall to promote the hemp industry over a three-year period. t that time, hemp often was used to produce rope.