The cannabis battle in South Carolina continues in the lawsuit of a farmer

The cannabis battle in South Carolina continues in the lawsuit of a farmer

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

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

According to the lawsuit, Pendarvis filed a variance application, saying extensive droughts had forced him to relocate the crop’s location. However, Derek Underwood, assistant commissioner of the Agriculture Department’s consumer protection division, insisted the farmer’s oversight was a “willful violation” of the state’s hemp breeding program, according to emails shared in the complaint. He then began seeking approval to destroy the crop.

The legal mechanism for seeking such approval is unclear, and this 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 a handful where medical marijuana is illegal after a seven-year effort to join about 38 other states in legalizing medical marijuana failed this spring.

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

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

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

Standard regulations still apply. Participating farmers must report their hemp crop coordinates to the South Carolina Department of Agriculture and cannot grow plants that exceed federal THC limits. Farmers must correct any negligent violations.

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

Top legal officials criticized the 2019 law’s unclear enforcement mechanisms in emails detailed in the complaint. Solicitor General Adam Cook said the statute is “ultra murky” and provides “no direction to law enforcement.” Without elucidation, the attorney general’s office advised that the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division is “seeking judicial authorization” to ensure Pendarvis “receives due process.”

But according to the complaint, officials did not follow through.

After failing to get a local judge to sign a seizure and destruction warrant, SLED agents—without describing their intent to destroy the crop—obtained an arrest warrant for Pendarvis from another magistrate. Emails shared in the complaint show agents took this action despite the original judge offering to hold a hearing on the case, which SLED General Counsel Adam Whitsett declined. Officials at the attorney general’s office then amended the guidance to agree with SLED’s conclusion that the hemp farm participation agreement — which allows for the destruction of crops grown in an unlicensed area — constituted the “valid consent” necessary to pursue their plan.

Pat McLaughlin, Pendarvis’ attorney, told The Associated Press that nowhere in the agreement does the farmers waive their right to challenge such findings.

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

In an email to the AP, Robert Kittle, director of communications for the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office, said the lawsuit “lacks merit.” A SLED spokesperson 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 is required to report violations to law enforcement, which decides whether to take action. The statement also reiterated SCDA’s enthusiasm for the hemp breeding 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 any of that to the farmer,” 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 hidden issues.

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