In more than half the states, marijuana is legal to a degree. Lawmakers in eleven states have made it legal for adults over 21 to use marijuana recreationally. In another 15 states, it’s no longer a criminal offense to be caught with small amounts of marijuana. The person caught with the drug is issued a citation and they simply pay a ticket. A lot of people believe that these states have given up on the idea of criminalizing what they consider a drug that simply isn’t dangerous. Others think that the states have decided that it makes more sense to profit from the drug rather than fight it. Regardless of the reasons, these states have decided to move away from the criminalization of marijuana. However, South Carolina is not one of these states.
Legislators and law enforcement agencies in South Carolina have decided not to decriminalize marijuana. In fact, it’s not even legal to use marijuana for medicinal purposes in South Carolina. The state leaders believe that marijuana is truly a gateway drug, leading young people to use harder, more lethal substances. There could be some truth to that. It really depends on who you ask. Either way, as of today, and for the foreseeable future, marijuana remains illegal in South Carolina.
What this means for people like James Armstrong, the leading criminalist for Greenville County’s Public Safety Commission, is that a lot of his time is spent testing for marijuana. This is because, in South Carolina, while marijuana is not legal, certain productions of hemp is. Hemp comes from the same plant as marijuana. However, it has a much lower THC level. This means people can’t use hemp to get high. Instead, it’s used to make a variety of products, ranging from paper to lotions and creams.
Ever since the legislature in South Carolina passed a law allowing for the industrial production of hemp, people like James Armstrong have been very busy.
How is Hemp Different from Marijuana?
When it comes to marijuana and other hemp-based products, a lot of people are confused. Some people think that hemp is the same thing as marijuana. Others don’t understand what THC is and what role it plays in cannabis products. It’s important that we take a moment to understand the difference between hemp and marijuana before we talk about the legal challenges facing South Carolina.
Hemp and marijuana do both come from the same plant – Cannabis Sativa. However, that’s where the similarities end. Marijuana is used to get high. The active ingredient in marijuana is THC. THC stands for tetrahydrocannabinol. The more THC in a strain of marijuana, the higher it will get you. Hemp, on the other hand, has a very low level of THC. In fact, from a legal standpoint, at least in South Carolina, in order to qualify as hemp, the THC level must be less than .3%.
While marijuana is used, both medicinally and recreationally, to get high, hemp is used to create certain products. There are many textiles that are produced from hemp. There are also different types of paper that are created from hemp. These products aren’t intended to get people high. They are simply natural materials used to produce certain goods. In South Carolina, it is now legal for certain companies to industrially produce hemp-based products.
How Do You Distinguish Hemp from Marijuana?
It used to be rather easy for law enforcement in South Carolina to test a product to see if it was marijuana or not. In fact, cops used to be able to test materials for marijuana right on the spot. However, with the increased use of hemp in South Carolina, they can no longer do this. Basically, the old tests would let an officer know if there was any THC present in a material. So, if they saw shake or any other substance that they believed to be marijuana, they could test it for the presence of THC. If it tested positive, they could arrest the suspect for possession of marijuana.
Now, this approach no longer works. Because there are a lot of products out there that have THC in them, cops can no longer simply look for the presence of THC. Law enforcement agencies now have to test to see how much THC is present in a material in order to deem it an illegal substance. This can’t be done on the spot. This means that, if an officer or prosecutor isn’t sure if a substance is marijuana, they have to send it to a lab for further testing. James Armstrong runs the lab that handles this for Greenville County.
According to Armstrong, the science is simple. They test a substance for the presence of THC. If THC is present, they then test to determine the concentration of the THC. If it’s .3% or lower, it’s categorized as hemp. If it’s higher than .3%, it’s categorized as marijuana. And, while the science may be quite simple, the process is anything but.
The Process of Determining if a Substance is Marijuana vs. Hemp Is Time-Consuming and Expensive
Some people think that, when it comes to testing for marijuana, it is simple. If you watch enough television, you’ve probably seen them test a substance for drugs right on the back of the cop’s car. And, for drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine, this is the case. They drop the substance into a liquid called methanol and, if it turned a certain color, they knew whether it was a drug or not. For marijuana, it works a bit differently.
In order to discriminate hemp from marijuana, Armstrong and other criminalists have to test for the presence of THC. Once they identify the presence of THC, they need to test for the concentration level of the THC. This is a multi-step process. First, the material has to be weighed. Then, it needs to be put under the microscope so the analyst can look for certain characteristics of the drug. Finally, it has to be submerged in methanol where it will remain for at least a day.
Not only is it time-consuming to do this testing, but it requires very expensive equipment. In all, the new testing equipment in Armstrong’s lab cost about $190,000. The equipment was so expensive that, for about 9 months, law enforcement agencies in Greenville County weren’t able to conduct any testing. This created a terrible backlog in criminal cases involving possession of marijuana.
What Does This Mean for Law Enforcement Agencies and the Criminal Courts?
While the Governor meant well when he passed legislation allowing for the industrial production of hemp products, nobody realized what it would mean for the criminal court system. In order to perform the necessary testing to discriminate between hemp and marijuana, the county had to purchase the expensive equipment described above. Not only that, but the process to test these substances now takes days instead of minutes. This has created a terrible backlog for criminal cases in Greenville County.
In the 9 months, the County was waiting to purchase the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer for Anderson’s team, almost 1,000 cases were backlogged. These cases all involved testing for marijuana. Rather than let the backlog persist, the prosecutor’s office had to make a choice. They had to dismiss a lot of cases and negotiate pleas for lesser offenses in hundreds of others. In some instances, the State was able to pursue charges not related to the possession of marijuana.
Even now that the equipment has been in place for a while, there is still a backlog of at least 100 cases. And this is only for Greenville County. It doesn’t include all the cases that the State Law Enforcement Division is handling for the rest of the region. In cases where the THC level is less than .1%, it’s sent to SLED for additional testing. This takes another 3-6 months, causing a statewide backlog in the criminal courts.
Does This Mean South Carolina Will Move Toward the Legalization of Marijuana?
Despite the costs and time involved, don’t expect South Carolina to abandon the testing process and, instead, move toward legalizing marijuana. Despite arguments from both the Marijuana Policy Project and NORML, the legislature in South Carolina is not moved by proponents for the legalization of marijuana. This means that, at least for the foreseeable future, James Armstrong and his colleagues will be continuing their testing for hemp and marijuana.
For some criminal defendants and their attorneys in South Carolina, the backlog created by the need for further testing has been frustrating, to say the least. If your case has been postponed due to testing issues, contact an experienced DUI attorney in Greenville today. Let our experienced defense attorneys review your case to see if they can negotiate with the prosecutor to get your charges reduced or dismissed.