They look the same, they smell the same, and for decades they were treated the same by law enforcement. The 2018 Farm Bill supposedly changed that, finally taking the shackles off hemp — a form of cannabis that, unlike its cousin marijuana, does not induce a high. But federal approval isn’t always viewed the same by local authorities, a disconnect that can result in confusion and chaos.
Just ask Mike Sims. The owner of three Charlotte CBD dispensaries, including a Columbia location in Five Points, sells hemp buds along with hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) products that many people use to find relief from issues like anxiety and chronic pain. The 2018 Farm Act removed hemp from the list of Schedule I controlled substances, and categorized it as an agricultural commodity. South Carolina also legalized hemp, and established a pilot program that allowed farmers to begin cultivating the crop.
So why does Sims occasionally have police stopping by his store? Why was one of his customers forced to fight eviction after a maintenance worker spotted a hemp bud in her apartment? Why have some Upstate sellers had their wares confiscated by police? Because a 2019 opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office muddied the waters between raw hemp and hemp products, often forcing local police to determine the difference.
“Right now, it’s like they don’t truly know what’s going on,” Sims says. “It’s a bunch of opinions. There is no definitive law, and it’s affecting business, because all of us just want to avoid trouble. We’ll take our products down, put them back up, package them like we think they say to package it. It’s all kind of legal jargon that is undefined, really, and it’s causing it to be even more of the Wild West. It’s a huge problem right now. We’re in this limbo, and there’s no real solution.”
An even bigger gray area
The hemp and CBD industries are new ones, exploding into a billion-dollar business after the Farm Bill removed the stigma from a plant that had previously been lumped in with heroin and ecstasy. Federal and state law define hemp as cannabis with a concentration of THC — tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical that gives marijuana its psychotropic effects — not exceeding 0.3 percent.
Those are the type of hemp buds Sims sells at his dispensaries, and he spends thousands of dollars to have his products tested at a North Carolina lab to ensure they meet the legal threshold. The sale of hemp plants makes up 53 percent of his business, he says, and he feels like South Carolina is trying to shut it down despite a federal bill that states otherwise.
“Ultimately, South Carolina is trying to ban this. There’s no definitive law that says it’s banned or illegal. Right now it’s just an opinion of the attorney general and some of the police officers. It’s going county by county, and sometimes even city by city, and sometimes even district by district in terms of what they think is legal and what isn’t, and it’s left an even bigger gray area than before we had the Farm Bill,” he says.
“I expected growing pains. But I didn’t expect growing pains that are trying to kill the industry, and that’s where the problem is. It’s just asinine. It’s like half the states are trying to move forward and progress (in marijuana legalization), and half the states are trying to regress and take away what we already have.”
Even the website of the state Department of Agriculture touts the benefit of hemp in making products such as rope, clothes, food, paper, textiles and supplements. CBD has been used to make a drug that helps control childhood seizures, and researchers also believe the product can help drug addicts in the recovery process. Hemp-derived products can now be found at most drug stores — but the flower itself, because of how it looks and what it resembles, continues to chafe anti-drug hardliners.
“It seems like the die-hard prohibitionists are the ones digging their heels in and kind of drawing the line in the sand,” Sims said. “And I think their world is getting smaller, and I think they realize they’re losing out.”
An emphasis on education
Sims preaches hemp education every chance he gets. He formed a nonprofit group, the Hemp Retailers Association, because he didn’t believe the industry was being represented well in either North or South Carolina. He hired a lobbying firm, trying to reinforce the message that hemp is not marijuana. But with the situation in South Carolina still unclear, and with no proven, portable test available so law enforcement officers can tell the two plants apart, education goes only so far.
“I take any opportunity I can to get in front of people and talk about it. Some people I get through to, and some I never will,” Sims says.
“A lot of people making these laws and these decisions have little to no knowledge of the actual plant and how it works. Trying to educate a lot of the politicians and lawmakers, I realized really quick that they weren’t in it to learn anything. They had an underlying agenda. I’ve brought in scientists, I’ve brought in farmers, I’ve brought in subject matter experts, and no one seems to pay attention.”
Sims, who also owns CBD dispensaries in Charlotte in Mooresville, North Carolina, will continue to advocate for products that have been okayed at both the federal and state levels.
Even in an age when marijuana legalization is sweeping the country and CBD has become a household item, a hemp bud is enough to give some local officials fits. “We have 100 years of propaganda running really deep in our culture,” Sims says.
Interested in learning more about hemp and CBD, including their uses, benefits, and type of products available? Contact Charlotte CBD’s Columbia location at (803) 563-6012, or visit at 610 Harden Street in Five Points. For further information, visit their website at CLTCBD.com.