The production of industrial hemp — a cousin of marijuana but distinctly different from the illicit drug — is a step closer in South Carolina as more than 120 farmers signed up to grow the crop here.
That’s great news for Janel Ralph of Conway, whose daughter Harmony takes cannabidiol or CBD oil, which is extracted from hemp, to control her seizures from intractable epilepsy. She was the first to apply for a growers permit.
Ralph started her own hemp oil production facility to produce CBD for her daughter and then expanded it into a business, Palmetto Harmony. She now imports her hemp from Kentucky and Colorado. If granted a permit, she plans to grow crops in the 45,000 square feet of greenhouse space she has in Horry County.
“Modern medicine can’t control (Harmony’s) seizures,” Ralph said. “She’s tried seven different epileptic drugs. But this does.”
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Hemp is used for myriad purposes, from food to clothing to composites for car and airplane parts to oils for medicines and dietary supplements. Advocates in South Carolina say it can provide another cash crop for Palmetto State farmers and provide a healthy addition to a farmer’s crop rotation.
In August, just two months before the deadline for one of just 20 growing permits, no farmers had filed an application. There were many reasons, including concerns that hemp would open the gate for decriminalization of its cousin, marijuana. The application process itself also was complex.
“It was an extensive process, and it took some folks some time to get their materials together,” said Aaron Wood, an assistant commissioner with the S.C. Department of Agriculture.
But, Wood said, he wasn’t surprised when the floodgates opened after the September deadline for applying was extended by one week.
“We didn’t know what to expect, but based on the level of interest throughout the legislative process, we’re not” surprised, he said.
The licenses will be issued to South Carolina 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.
If more than 20 farmers meet the criteria, the licenses will be issued based on several factors, including which farmers have the greatest chances of success. Also, the Department of Agriculture will try to spread the licenses across the state to see which regions have the best growing conditions.
After the first year of 20 licenses for 20 acres, the program the next year would expand to 40 licenses for 40 acres each. After that, the agriculture department and the state’s research universities would determine whether the program would be expanded.
Unlike marijuana, hemp can’t get you high. 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.
Today, about 90 percent of the hemp used in the United States for industrial purposes is imported from China. But more states are allowing hemp to be grown.
Thirty-one states have laws that provide for hemp production or that allow 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 the crop on more than 10,000 acres each.
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 largely were forgotten.
One of the concerns today about sanctioning hemp cultivation is that large hemp fields could be used to mask the cultivation of marijuana. But hemp is the dominant of the two species and would neutralize the psychoactive compounds in marijuana.