At first glance it seems that a child with an autoimmune disorder would have little in common with the fabric in the door of a BMW. Both, however, benefit from elements of the hemp plant, a crop that’s pushing a growth spurt for South Carolina farmers and that boasts a long history in the state.
Dating back to the 17th century when it was a major boon for mother England, natural hemp fiber was a versatile product during the Colonial era, used in textiles for clothes, ropes for ships, and durable fine thread for fishing nets, making it a huge cash crop for the state where it grows so easily (see Dr. James Kibler’s article in the July 2020 issue for more about the South Carolina history of this crop).
Today, medical research has found compounds in hemp can help alleviate some of the effects of numerous autoimmune disorders. At the same time, the strong hemp fiber is increasingly used in fabric for a range of commercial purposes, such as the fabric in car doors. Both uses could bring commercial success for South Carolina farmers growing this crop and have shown promise medically and commercially. However, hemp often remains controversial because of frequent misconceptions about the connection between hemp and marijuana.
According to the South Carolina Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, hemp and marijuana come from the plant species called Cannabis sativa, which contains more than 80 biologically active chemical compounds. One of the most commonly known compounds is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. This is the naturally occurring chemical that causes the psychoactive reactions of marijuana. Another compound is cannabidiol, or CBD, which has shown potential health benefits, particularly for treating epilepsy and other autoimmune disorders.
Federal and South Carolina law define hemp as any part of the plant with a THC concentration of less than 0.3 percent of its dried weight. Anything above that is considered marijuana and is illegal in the state.
A 1937 federal law outlawed marijuana and designated it as a controlled substance, halting any remaining legal cultivation of hemp in the state, but recent years have brought a resurgence of interest in hemp for both commercial and medicinal purposes. According to the Charleston County Public Library’s “Time Machine” series, “In recent years, people involved in various efforts to rehabilitate the reputation of Cannabis have adopted the phrases ‘industrial hemp’ and ‘medicinal cannabis’ in reference to the different uses of what is essentially the same plant.”
In 2014, the South Carolina General Assembly passed Julian’s Law that allowed, in limited circumstances, an exemption from the criminal definition of marijuana for possession and use of CBD. The law was named after a young boy in Summerville who suffered from epilepsy. His family had moved to Colorado in order to get the CBD products he needed to alleviate his seizures.
State legislators passed another law in 2017 after a provision of the 2014 federal Farm Bill opened the door for South Carolina to allow farmers to grow industrial hemp under strict state regulation by the state Department of Agriculture. In 2018, the first year of legal hemp farming in South Carolina in nearly 100 years, that law allowed the department to issue up to 20 licenses for up to 20 acres of crop per farmer. That number expanded in 2019. The department expects to issue more than 300 hemp farming permits in 2020.
Eva Moore with the S.C. Department of Agriculture says, “Part of our role is to nurture the industry, regulate it and its processes.” This includes farmers, processors, and transportation companies that come in contact with the plant. This year, the department is also charged with testing all the crops in the state to make sure they meet the guidelines for THC levels.
“Hemp is a tricky crop and a risky business because the industry is so new. It takes a good bit of money and sourcing to produce a good crop,” Eva says.
State Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers has been a champion for helping hemp famers succeed in cultivating this new crop in a state where farming has seen its share of challenges in recent decades.
“Farmers have taken a risk growing this crop, and they’ve seen some ups and downs. We’ve all learned a lot over the past two years,” says Hugh. “We continue to recruit processing companies so that South Carolina farmers will have a market for their hemp crop. We look forward to seeing what the third year of the Hemp Farming Program brings.”
The approval process to get certified to grow hemp is complex. State law says growers must pass a background check to ensure that they have no felony controlled substance convictions in the past 10 years. Eva says, “You have to show where you’re going to grow, go through the process, and pay the application and permit fees. Once approved, you have to buy seeds and test the crop regularly to make sure the THC doesn’t get too high. It’s also pretty labor intensive to harvest.”
The quality of the seeds can also be an issue. Eva says, “You’re buying a strain that hopefully doesn’t have much THC in it. Plus, growing conditions can affect whether there’s too much THC in the plant. A lot of farmers are out there testing regularly to make sure they get high enough CBD results.”
In past years, the Department of Agriculture allowed farmers to do the testing themselves and submit results to a lab. “Starting this year, because of federal law changes, Department of Agriculture staff will test,” Eva says.
The testing takes place within 15 days before harvest to test THC levels. “They have to destroy the crop if it’s too high.”
The vast majority of farmers have been growing hemp for CBD production, and that’s where the market and money has been.
“We’re committed to helping nurture South Carolina’s hemp industry,” says Hugh. “Encouraging a new crop is a way to help existing farmers diversify and expand their operations, as well as to recruit new people to farming. Agribusiness is South Carolina’s largest industry, and we want to help it grow.”
The fact that hemp holds promise for both commercial and health uses makes it an attractive option for South Carolina farmers. Hemp fiber is strong and flexible and can be used in manufacturing automobile bodies, durable fabrics, and construction materials, whereas CBD derived from hemp has potential for health benefits. CBD can be used in a variety of ways for medicinal purposes. It can be taken by mouth as a capsule or gummy or added to food products. It can be smoked or applied directly to the skin as an oil.
A University of South Carolina researcher is adding to the body of knowledge that could allow hemp cultivation for medical purposes to increase in the state. Dr. Prakash Nagarkatti, vice president for research at the University of South Carolina, has been studying the medical value of cannabis for more than 20 years. His lab’s work has been published in a wide variety of medical journals focusing on the potential use of cannabis to help fight cancer and autoimmune diseases.
“We were one of the first labs to demonstrate that marijuana cannabinoids such as THC and CBD are potent anti-inflammatory agents and can cure cancers in animal models as well as kill human leukemic cancer cells,” says Prakash. “Our research has been reproduced all over the world, and our groundbreaking studies have been covered in a PBS documentary called ‘Clearing the Smoke: Science of Cannabis.’”
According to Prakash, more than 80 autoimmune diseases result when the immune system goes haywire and destroys organs and tissues through chronic inflammation. Examples of these include multiple sclerosis, arthritis, colitis, lupus, and Type 1 diabetes, all of which have no cure. Existing medications provide relief only to the symptoms and often trigger significant side effects.
The USC research has shown that THC and CBD are very effective against such inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. “Recent studies from our lab showed that CBD is highly effective against autoimmune hepatitis in which the patient’s immune system starts destroying liver,” says Prakash. “Our patent from USC on use of CBD to treat autoimmune hepatitis has been approved by FDA as an orphan drug. We are now in the process of doing clinical trials.”
The personal reality of this type of research and medical advances resulting from this type of research work has hit home for Janel Ralph and her family in Conway. Doctors diagnosed Janel’s daughter, Harmony, with lissencephaly, which causes epilepsy and which resulted in her having to take steroids and multiple other anti-epileptic drugs for the first couple of years of her life to control the increasingly frequent seizures.
When Harmony was 3 1/2, those treatments just stopped working, Janel says. “The doctors said there just wasn’t much more we could do for her. We were at our wit’s end.”
But Janel remembered someone in California suggesting she try a CBD product to help Harmony’s condition. Initially she discounted the idea. “I’m not going to give my kid pot. That’s crazy,” Janel says. After the traditional regimen of medication stopped working, however, Janel was determined to find something to help her daughter.
Regulations surrounding the use of hemp for medicinal purposes can be both a blessing and a curse. From a safety standpoint, strong regulation is essential, and if the regulations appear ambiguous, it opens the door for less than reputable processors and distributors to sell their wares as legitimate products. That’s the problem that spurred Janel to action to get relief for her daughter’s condition.
This was in 2014 just as Julian’s Law had passed through the state legislative process. “There wasn’t a lot of education at that point,” Janel says. “People thought CBD was marijuana. At that point, I went to Harmony’s medical professionals. They gave me my letter so I could get it, but said they couldn’t find it or give it to us.”
Janel reached out on social media. She started a Facebook group for families who had children with epilepsy who were also seeking sources of quality CBD. “Nobody had it. I’d read about people moving to Colorado to get it.”
“We did finally get some CBD,” says Janel. It was a 30-day supply, and it stopped Harmony’s seizures. “If we hadn’t tried it, I wouldn’t have known it worked.”
She adds, “After that, we received CBD products from people all over the country and products proved to be illegal, falsely labeled, or not even CBD.”
Janel ended up reaching out to a father in Kentucky who had partnered with a group in Colorado to grow CBD. “He was growing and had a lot of flower for sale, which we ended up purchasing and then manufactured into a line of products,” she says.
Janel rented a space for CBD bottling and distribution in Conway, and eventually the effort grew into a successful business called Palmetto Harmony, named after her daughter. Since starting the CBD regimen, Harmony’s seizures are 95 percent gone, Janel says.
In her journey to get this relief for her daughter, Janel also had to learn much about state politics as she played a significant part in the 2017 efforts to pass the industrial hemp bill. “Everyone at the State House thought I was crazy. There’s that mom trying to pass a marijuana bill,” she says.
Today, Palmetto Harmony is a national distributor of CBD products that Janel says are USDA organic certified and include third-party lab tests by an ISO certified lab. Because of the 2017 law, Palmetto Harmony has been able to bring its whole operation into South Carolina. “We contract with farmers. We grow, manufacture, and breed the hemp,” says Janel.
Although CBD has proven useful for many chronically ill patients like Janel’s daughter, the Food and Drug Administration still warns of the unknowns related to this substance. Janel agrees that one major challenge regarding CBD is the lack of regulation over its production and distribution. “Farmers who grow it often don’t know what to do with it once it’s harvested,” Janel says. “I’ve seen people extract it on the dirt floors in the back of their greenhouse. Until the FDA starts regulating, we’re going to see manufacturing facilities that are not regulated and products with no traceability. This means the consumer has no recourse and is at risk.”
According to the federal agency’s website, “The FDA has seen only limited data about CBD safety and these data point to real risks that need to be considered before taking CBD for any reason. Some CBD products are being marketed with unproven medical claims and are of unknown quality.”
Meanwhile in USC’s research labs, work continues to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of CBD. Prakash says, “Recently, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the most prestigious scientific association in the U.S., released a report on the health effects of cannabis after reviewing over 10,000 publications in the field of cannabis. This report noted that cannabis was highly effective against chronic pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting in cancer patients, and multiple sclerosis, to name a few, consistent with our research findings.”
As Dr. James Kibler wrote in our July 2020 article about this crop in the state’s history, “The story of South Carolina’s cash crops is thus still unfolding.”