The Cannabis Fight in South Carolina Persists in a Farmer’s Lawsuit

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A South Carolina farmer is suing multiple state agencies in federal court alleging they conspired to deny him his due process rights after authorities destroyed his crop in 2019. of hemp, which was grown in unregistered fields.

In a federal lawsuit filed Sept. 16, John Trenton Pendarvis alleges that he was denied due process by the South Carolina Division of Law Enforcement, Department of Agriculture, and attorney general’s office after Department of Agriculture officials Agriculture discovered undeclared hemp crops during a check of their property in Dorchester County on July 30, 2019.

According to the suit, Pendarvis filed an amendment request, saying extensive droughts had forced him to change the location of his farm. However, Derek Underwood, deputy commissioner of the Department of Agriculture’s Consumer Protection Division, insisted the farmer’s oversight was a “willful violation” of the state’s hemp farming program, according to emails shared in the complaint. . He then began to seek approval to destroy the crop.

The legal mechanism for seeking such approval is unclear, which is where Pendarvis alleges that the government’s procedure violated his due process rights.

South Carolina has taken a strict approach to all matters related to cannabis over the years. The state remains one of the few where medical marijuana is illegal after a seven-year effort to join 38 other states in legalizing medical marijuana failed this spring.

Despite this, the state jumped into commercial hemp cultivation a few years ago.

The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, a federal bill President Donald Trump signed into law nearly four years ago, defined hemp as a cannabis plant that contains no more than 0.3% THC by dry weight, which which means that it lacks psychoactive properties. of marijuana Under the new federal law, states could expand commercial cultivation of hemp, and South Carolina did the same.

Republican Governor Henry McMaster signed the Hemp Farming Act into law in March 2019. Lawmakers found that the plant could potentially serve as “a cash crop” that would “enhance the economic diversity and stability of our state’s agricultural industry.”

Standard rules still apply. Participating farmers must report the coordinates of their hemp crops to the South Carolina Department of Agriculture and may not grow plants that exceed federal THC limits. Farmers must correct any negligent violation.

Pendarvis, a fourth-generation farmer, was the first person charged with a misdemeanor under the state’s hemp farming program.

Senior legal officials criticized the unclear enforcement mechanisms of the 2019 law in emails detailed in the complaint. South Carolina Attorney General Adam Cook said the statute is “ultra murky” and “gives law enforcement no direction.” Without clarity, the state attorney general’s office advised that the South Carolina Division of Law Enforcement “seek judicial authorization” to “receive due process.”

But according to the complaint, the officials did not comply.

After failing to get a local judge to sign their seizure and destruction order, SLED agents, without detailing their intent to destroy the crop, obtained an arrest warrant for Pendarvis from another magistrate. Emails shared in the complaint show that officers took this action despite the original judge offering to hold a hearing on the matter, which SLED General Counsel Adam Whitsett refused. Officials from the attorney general’s office later modified their guidance to agree with SLED’s conclusion that the hemp cultivation share agreement, which allows for the destruction of crops grown in an unlicensed area, amounted to the ” valid consent” necessary to carry out your plan.

Pat McLaughlin, Pendarvis’s attorney, told the Associated Press that nowhere in the settlement do the farmers waive their right to challenge such findings.

SLED agents destroyed the hemp crop that same day. Pendarvis alleges that seven requests to call his attorney were not granted by agents, who told him the Department of Agriculture was “aligned with everything we’re here for.”

In a statement emailed to the AP, South Carolina Attorney General’s Office Communications Director Robert Kittle said the lawsuit is “meritless.” A SLED spokesperson said it would be inappropriate to comment while the litigation is pending.

The Agriculture Department pointed to a 2019 statement in which the department said it must report violations to law enforcement, who decide whether to take action. The statement also reiterated SCDA’s enthusiasm for the hemp cultivation program.

McLaughlin said law enforcement officials never explained the consequences to Pendarvis until they arrived more than six weeks after the initial discovery to destroy the crop.

“They want the benefit of the doubt on this, but they didn’t give the farmer anything,” McLaughlin said.

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James Pollard is a staff member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues.

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