COLUMBIA, S.C. (WBTW) — As South Carolina’s hemp farming program continues to grow, so does a backlog at the state’s crime lab.
Because hemp and marijuana are both forms of cannabis, it’s almost impossible to tell them apart on the street. But SLED says the need for testing has turned into a ‘nightmare.’
South Carolina has seen the number of hemp farmers significantly grow since the program began.
Trey Cooper runs an indoor hemp grow in the Effingham area. Enter, and you’ll find nearly 400 plants sitting under lights in a temperature controlled room.
“This year, I’m growing for the smokable or oil,” he said. “Once you have great buds, you can create great products from that. You can make pain relief. You can make oils.”
He’s been involved for about three years and swears by his product.
“I do believe it’s going to be the new Tylenol,” he said.
So what exactly is hemp?
It’s a form of cannabis that can be used to make all sort of products. Anything from plastics to textiles. It contains CBD, which is a cannabinoid that many claim to have medical benefits. CBD is often extracted for use in oils and creams. Some people smoke hemp.
According to federal and South Carolina laws, hemp cannot exceed a .3 percent concentration of THC. Otherwise, it’s considered marijuana, and illegal in the state. THC is the chemical that produces most of the psychoactive effects of marijuana.
Hemp is legal to grow and sell in South Carolina through a regulated program.
Clearwater BioTech is one of the few private labs in the state that tests to see the difference.
“With the farm bill, hemp was legalized in the state of South Carolina, originally started with 20 farmers who were approved. That was a couple years ago,” Chief Science Officer Dr. Marion Snyder said.
Dr. Snyder said the program was over 100 farmers last year.
“They have to test their hemp and make sure it qualifies and is not over the legal limit for THC, which would then put it in the category of marijuana and it would have to be disposed of,” Dr. Snyder said.
The laboratory analysis can be time consuming, but gives technicians a detailed look at what’s inside each sample. Samples too high in THC are deemed marijuana, and placed in a separate room before being disposed of.
Technicians say the full lab testing gives a much better look at the components than field testers that are out.
“On the street, hemp and marijuana— very difficult, if not impossible to distinguish,” Major Mike Nunn with the Florence County Sheriff’s Office said. “If it looks like marijuana, smells like marijuana… the officers have probable cause to believe that it is marijuana. And can make an appropriate charge at that time.”
That’s subject to laboratory analysis, though. The Florence County Sheriff’s Office has the ability to do so in house.
“We’re fortunate in Florence County to have in house a qualified certified chemist to conduct these analyses, which is court advisable and proves pretty much beyond doubt what the substance is,” Major Nunn said.
Not every law enforcement has the ability to do their own testing, though. Many have to send samples into SLED’s state crime lab. That’s causing a backlog, and SLED officials are sounding the alarm.
“It was told to us that smokable form would not be allowed,” Captain of Forensic Operations at SLED Dr. Wendy Bell said to lawmakers at a January subcommittee meeting. “From a laboratory perspective, it has created a nightmare situation.”
SLED’s drug analysis department has gone from handling 9,000 marijuana-related cases a year to 14,000.
“We have to test every single bit of plant material that comes into our lab to differentiate whether it’s marijuana or hemp so people are charged appropriately,” Dr. Bell said. “Because of that, we had about a 15 day turnaround on marijuana cases when I became captain at SLED. And now it’s about, almost a year long process.”
Some help is on the way though.
A bigger and better state crime lab is under construction just down the road from SLED’s HQ in Columbia. Plus, companies are racing to get a reliable field test out, including Hemp Synergistics out of Pennsylvania.
“What we’re hoping with this product is it gives law enforcement more opportunity to say, no, this is more consistent with hemp. And I have now an objective reason that I don’t have to investigate further,” COO of Hemp Synergistics Ron Fazio said.
The company worked with Purdue University Northwest to create a new field test that could be a gamechanger. Fazio says it could really help law enforcement, the consumer and the hemp industry.
“It literally can open up states for more hemp products,” he said. “We’re not trying to replace the crime lab… We’re just trying to reduce the number of cases, they don’t want to see.”