South Carolina cannabis fight persists in farmer’s lawsuit
COLUMBIA, SC (AP) — A South Carolina farmer is suing multiple state agencies in federal court on the grounds that they conspired to deny him his due process rights after authorities in 2019 destroyed his crop of hemp, which was grown in unregistered fields.
In a federal lawsuit filed Sept. 16, John Trenton Pendarvis alleges that the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, Department of Agriculture and Attorney General’s Office all denied him due process after Department of Agriculture officials discovered undeclared hemp crops during an audit of his Dorchester County property on July 30, 2019.
According to the lawsuit, Pendarvis filed for variation and said long droughts forced him to move the location of his crop. However, Derek Underwood, deputy commissioner of the Agriculture Department’s Consumer Protection Division, insisted the farmer’s surveillance was a “deliberate violation” of the state’s hemp cultivation program. , according to the emails shared in the complaint. He then began asking permission to destroy the crop.
The legal mechanism for obtaining such approval is unclear, which is where Pendarvis alleges the government’s procedure violated his due process rights.
South Carolina has taken a rigorous approach to all cannabis issues over the years. The state remains one of the few where medical marijuana is illegal after a failed seven-year effort to join about 38 other states in legalizing medical marijuana this spring.
Despite this, the state got into commercial hemp cultivation a few years ago.
The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 – a federal bill that was signed into law by President Donald Trump nearly four years ago – defined hemp as a cannabis plant containing no more than 0.3% THC. on a dry weight basis, which means it does not have the psychoactive properties of marijuana. Under the new federal law, states could expand commercial hemp cultivation, and South Carolina has followed suit.
Republican Governor Henry McMaster signed the Hemp Farming Act 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 regulations still apply. Participating farmers must report their hemp crop details 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 cultivation program.
Senior legal officials criticized the 2019 law’s unclear enforcement mechanisms in emails detailed in the complaint. South Carolina Solicitor General Adam Cook said the law is “ultra murky” and gives “no direction to law enforcement.” Without clarity, the state attorney general’s office said the South Carolina Division of Law Enforcement is “seeking judicial authorization” to ensure that Pendarvis “receives due process.”
But according to the complaint, the authorities did not follow up.
After failing to get a local judge to sign their seizure and destruction order, SLED officers – without detailing their intention to destroy the crop – obtained a warrant for Pendarvis’ arrest from another magistrate. Emails shared in the complaint show officers took the action despite the original judge’s offer to hold a hearing in the case, which SLED General Counsel Adam Whitsett declined. Officials from the Attorney General’s Office later amended their guidelines to accept SLED’s conclusion that the Hemp Cultivation Participation Agreement – which allows for the destruction of crops growing in an unlicensed area – amounted to “valid consent.” necessary to pursue their plan.
Pat McLaughlin, Pendarvis’ attorney, told The Associated Press that nowhere in the agreement do farmers waive their right to challenge such findings.
SLED officers destroyed the hemp crop the same day. Pendarvis alleges that seven appeal requests from his attorney were not granted by officers, who told him the Department of Agriculture was “aligned with everything we are here for.”
In an emailed statement to the AP, South Carolina Attorney General’s Office Communications Director Robert Kittle said the lawsuit “lacks merit.” A spokesperson for SLED said it would be inappropriate to comment while litigation is ongoing.
The Department of Agriculture pointed to a 2019 statement in which the department said it was required to report violations to law enforcement, who decide whether or not 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, but they haven’t given the farmer any of that,” McLaughlin said.
James Pollard is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues.