South Carolina quietly legalizes growing hemp

A crew harvests 27 acres of hemp on a farm near Winchester, Kentucky, in 2015. Kentucky is one of the leading growers of hemp in the United States.
A crew harvests 27 acres of hemp on a farm near Winchester, Kentucky, in 2015. Kentucky is one of the leading growers of hemp in the United States. Herald-Leader

Lost to most in the flurry of legislation at the end of the South Carolina General Assembly’s session earlier this month was a bill legalizing the growth of industrial hemp. Not pot, but hemp.

Industrial hemp is different from its cousin marijuana in that it contains 0.3 percent or less of the psychoactive chemical that will get you high. Marijuana, a separate variety of Cannabis sativa, can contain up to 40 percent.

Hemp is used for myriad purposes, from food to clothing to composites for car and airplane parts to oils for dietary supplements. Soon, perhaps this summer, the S.C. Department of Agriculture and the State Law Enforcement Division will issue 20 licenses to grow crops on up to 20 acres as a pilot program.

“It’s my hope that they will act very quickly,” said State Sen. Danny Verdin, R-Laurens, chairman of the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

Verdin, who raises cattle and owns Verdin’s Farm & Garden Center in Laurens, noted that in South Carolina’s temperate climate, farmers could grow three or four crops of hemp a year.

“Maybe we could start crop production this year,” he said.

Today, about 90 percent of the hemp used in the United States for industrial purposes is imported from China. But more and more states are allowing hemp to be grown.

Thirty-one states have laws to provide for hemp production or pilot programs under the auspices of the federal 2014 Farm Bill. The states include North Carolina and Tennessee.

Colorado and Kentucky lead the nation in hemp production, growing more than 10,000 acres each.

“We’re a little late into the game,” Verdin said.

The prohibition of hemp began in 1939 when the federal Marijuana Tax Act strictly regulated the cultivation and sale of all cannabis varieties.

Then the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified all forms of cannabis as a Schedule I drug, making it illegal to grow in the United States. As a result, the industrial uses for hemp evaporated and were largely forgotten.

One of the concerns today about sanctioning hemp cultivation is that large hemp fields could be used to mask the cultivation of marijuana. However, John Finamore, executive director of the National Hemp Association in Denver, said hemp is the dominant of the two species and would neutralize the psychoactive compounds in the marijuana.

“The last thing a marijuana grower wants to do is grow them together,” he said.

South Carolina lawmakers approved the pilot program to determine whether it could be of value to the state’s farmers. Hemp is an easy crop: It needs little water, hardly any pesticides or fertilizer and grows in all soil types.

“Any agricultural crop we can cultivate here and make a profit for our farmers, we should try,” said State Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, who noted that agribusiness is the No. 1 industry in the Palmetto State.

In South Carolina, the licenses will be issued to growers who have passed a State Law Enforcement Division background check. The growers also have to work with an in-state research university to develop products and a market for them. And they must have a contracted buyer for the hemp.

After the first year of 20 licenses for 20 acres, the program the next year would expand to 50 licenses for 50 acres each. After that, the Agriculture Department and the state’s research universities would determine whether the program would be expanded.

In states like Colorado, hemp cultivation is unlimited.

“Anyone can grow hemp here as long as they register with the state,” Finamore said.

One business that is contracting with potential growers is Charleston’s Palmetto Biomass.

Presently, co-owner Wesley Bryant and his partners sell 50,000 to 250,000 tons of biomass each year to buyers in Europe and China, mostly for power plants. Much of that biomass is wood chips and agricultural residue.

But, he said, hemp would be preferred “because it burns cleaner, longer and stronger.”

Verdin said that as growers come aboard and products are developed, the industry has a chance to both add to a farmer’s bottom line and perhaps breathe life into some of South Carolina’s abandoned textile mills.

“It might just be a niche,” he said. “But I believe there is a demonstrated marketplace globally. This very slow and heavy regulated approach will quickly evolve into a valuable industry. Imagine if we could actually make textiles in our textile mills again.”

States that allow growing industrial hemp

  • Alabama
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kentucky
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Washington
  • West Virginia
  • Virginia