NEWLAND — Hemp is big, and was made legal to grow and sell under strict scrutiny in North Carolina in recent years.
Hemp is a strain of cannabis sativa, one of a small handful of species of cannabis plants.
Cannabis plants are best known for being the source of the drug of the same name which goes by a seemingly endless list of street names. That drug is legal for medicinal purposes in a number of states, and legal for recreational use in a select few, though the drug is still federally illegal.
Hemp has been used throughout history in fiber and textile products, though the burgeoning industry of today is creating hemp to be turned into products used for their Cannabidiol content.
Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a cannabinoid currently being studied for medicinal applications. In 2018 the Federal Drug Administration approved a drug with CBD as the active ingredient to treat some forms of epilepsy.
Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the psychoactive component found in cannabis primarily associated with the drug. In North Carolina hemp must contain .3 percent or less THC or the crop must be destroyed, making cross pollination a concern for growers.
The current version of the N.C. Farm Bill, which passed the State Senate and is currently working its way through committee in the House, includes a specific ban on smokable hemp in the state, though that part of the bill has been the subject of scrutiny.
Law enforcement in Avery County are concerned with the legal status of smokable hemp.
Avery County Sheriff Kevin Frye said full legalization of smokable hemp would make current marijuana laws unenforceable, as hemp is difficult to distinguish in smell and appearance from illegal cannabis with a high concentration of THC.
There is no simple means for officers in the field to test the THC content of what could be cannabis or hemp, and Frye said that could invalidate searches that could uncover other illegal drugs, weapons and so on.
“We as law enforcement understand that the farmers are looking for a really legitimate cash crop,” Frye said.
The Sheriff’s Office is aware of all the legal hemp production in the county and noted that production picked up when certain CBD products like oil became legal. Hemp also tests positive in field test kits officers use to identify cannabis.
“It tests positive just like marijuana does. It looks exactly like marijuana does. It smells exactly like marijuana does, so now how is a law enforcement officer supposed to determine what’s hemp and what’s marijuana?” Frye said, adding legalizing smokable hemp would be a backdoor method of legalizing cannabis.
When you drive up to Joe Evans’ home outside of Newland, outside of a small sign advertising his CBD oils and salves, there is nothing to indicate he is a hemp grower. The garden in his front yard is planted with vegetables and sunflowers.
Around back is a freshly constructed greenhouse Evans will use to aid his hemp drying and production, and a shed with some of his harvested and dried product sitting inside, including an enormous sack of dried buds, termed hemp biomass, that looks and smells like cannabis.
Evans processes his own product into full spectrum CBD oil, which is refined from CBD crude oil, a tar-like substance created my macerating the dried hemp buds in an ethanol.
“You’d be amazed at how many people smoke hemp to get their CBD,” Evans said. “I was totally blown away by the market for it.”
Evans, who has had other entrepreneurial ventures in holistic health, said he started growing hemp because he thinks it helps people, citing testimonies from people who have benefited from his products.
Evans pointed out he and his wife are Christians and he believes people should be allowed to do what they want, as long as it is not causing harm to anyone else or their property. He noted he believes marijuana legalization is coming as well.
“Medical marijuana is coming,” Evans said. “Recreational marijuana is probably coming and it’s going to be like a lot of things. It may go through a birthing process, and it’s going to have its ups and downs, but it’s coming, and the reason it’s coming is because people are going to demand it.”
Evans’ field, a short drive from his home, is located directly across the road from a field of Christmas trees. The hemp, though lighter in color, looks like small Christmas trees from the road.
When asked if he has had any problems with neighbors because of the operation, Evans said some of them are just happy to have access to the products.