EDITORIAL: Struggling hemp industry needs our support
We’ve been talking a lot about cannabis at the national and state levels in recent years, but there are really three or four separate debates going on. And as we were reminded by a recent Post and Courier report on South Carolina’s struggling hemp industry, people who hope to win converts to their cause of choice would do well to remember that.
At the top of the tower of controversy is legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, which 18 states have done even though it violates federal law. Although former U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham has proposed it as part of his campaign for governor, even most Democrats in South Carolina seem hesitant to embrace the idea, and most Republicans are adamantly opposed.
A related, less understood idea is to decriminalize marijuana — that is, to keep it illegal but treat its possession like a speeding ticket, which would have the effect of deprioritizing marijuana arrests. This could reduce prison costs and racial disparities in policing, so it has wider, but still limited, support.
An unrelated idea — or one that should be unrelated — is the medicinal use of marijuana. So far, 38 states have authorized medical marijuana, which studies show can relieve chronic pain that prescription drugs can’t touch and do so without the dangerous side effects of opioids.
Whatever you think of medicinal marijuana — and our editorial staff supports it — it continues to face significant opposition from South Carolina’s law enforcement community and many physicians. They believe medical marijuana would make it more difficult for police to fight illegal marijuana use and would make physicians feel pressured to prescribe a drug that lacks FDA approval.
That doesn’t mean supporters should give up, but it does mean that people whose primary interest is the cultivation of hemp should steer clear of that issue — and even further from decriminalization and legalization of recreational marijuana.
Which brings us to what should be a noncontroversial use of cannabis: hemp farming, which has been touted for years as a replacement for tobacco and other fading crops — a way to support South Carolina’s struggling farm economy.
Within months of Congress’ lifting restrictions on hemp production and use in 2018, our Legislature expanded the state’s experimental hemp-growing program, and more than 200 farmers now have licenses to grow hemp.
But like hemp growers in other states, most are focused on the booming retail market for cannabidiol, or CBD, oversaturating the market. Compounding the problem is the fact that, as one of many efforts to help police distinguish legal hemp from illegal marijuana, the Legislature prohibited farmers from selling hemp flowers, which are used for smoking and in the manufacture of most CBD products, to stores in the state. The result, as The Post and Courier’s Jerrel Floyd reports, is that hemp farmers have produce going to waste while CBD stores and other retail outlets are selling out of processed hemp purchased from other states.
The struggles of the hemp industry are worrisome, not because hemp is an essential crop — at least not yet — but because there is great social, environmental and economic value in preserving South Carolina’s agricultural heritage.
Growers should have recognized the state restrictions before they jumped into the business, but now that we have a crop of farmers who better understand the practical effect of our state laws, the Legislature should work with them, the Agriculture Department and law enforcement to find a way to loosen the restrictions. Hemp advocates who hope to convince legislators should stop talking about recreational or even medicinal marijuana when making their case. In fact, they should do everything they can to separate those issues in the minds of legislators — and everyone.
And instead of focusing so much on the shiny object that is the oversaturated CBD market, hemp farmers should cultivate new markets for hemp fiber and grain, such as its potential use in rope, clothing, mulch, building materials, paper and fuel. That’s something the state Agriculture Department could, and should, work to grow.
Reprinted with permission from The Post & Courier of Charleston and The Associated Press.