A bill allowing farmers to grow industrial hemp in a South Carolina pilot project is headed to the governor’s desk.
The plant is controversial because it is a close relative to marijuana, but does not possess the chemical properties that make a person feel “high.” A 2014 federal law allows states to begin researching the plant to see if it is viable. Gov. Henry McMaster’s spokesman indicated the governor will sign the bill when it reaches his desk.
Under the plan approved by both the Senate and House this week, the program would allow up to 20 farmers to apply for permits to grow up to 20 acres of hemp for the project’s first year. In the second year, up to 40 farmers could work 40 acres. After that, the state Department of Agriculture will determine if the program should continue and adjust its permitting process accordingly.
Supporters had argued the initial acreage is too small for farmers to make money, but sponsor State Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, believes the phase-in of gradually larger acreage could make it more appealing.
“I think, on the phase-in, 20 acres would be okay and moving towards 40 acres gets us close to where we wanted to be anyway,” he told South Carolina Radio Network after the vote.
The State Law Enforcement Division wanted the smaller fields so its agents would able to inspect the property to make sure marijuana plants are not being hidden among the hemp crop. The bill requires hemp plants contain less than 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana. Pitts said there is no reason for legitimate crops to have levels that high, anyway.
South Carolina first legalized industrial hemp in 2014, but did not create a clear licensing process. 15 other states had similar pilot studies as of 2016, according to the VoteHemp.com website. Hemp is often used as fibers in manufacturing, but American companies which use hemp rely on crops grown overseas.
Palmetto Biomass founder Wes Bryant said he is okay with inspections — adding he thought it unlikely illegal marijuana farmers would go to all the trouble of registering with the state. But he warned the acreage approved this week is lower than he would have liked.
“If South Carolina comes in with this little, itty-bitty pilot program, you’re going to be competing with farmers in other states that already have tried-and-true crops,” he told South Carolina Radio Network in March. “The guys in South Carolina that are wanting to start this up are going to be competing with those right across the border” in North Carolina, which already has such a program.