S.C. Department of Agriculture officials probably should have gone easier on a permitted hemp farmer near Harleyville before unleashing law enforcement on him, resulting in 10 acres of his crop being destroyed.

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The highly publicized Sept. 19 arrest of farmer Trent Pendarvis, and the first such seizure in South Carolina, will likely make other farmers think twice before getting into the potentially lucrative business.

The crop in question was growing in a field where it shouldn't have been, what Pendarvis called a technicality that he tried to correct. And certainly the SCDA, which called the violation willful, should have fined him. But sending a platoon of officers to arrest him and a tractor rig to shred his crop was overkill.

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Pendarvis told Post and Courier reporter Thomas Novelly he believed "they wanted to make an example out of me."

Part of the reason hemp is so tightly regulated is because it's nearly identical to marijuana, at least to the untrained eye.

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State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel said his agency, which consulted the attorney general's office and the local solicitor's office before taking action, was just doing its job. When making an arrest, "we treat everybody the same," he said, adding that SLED was acting at the request of the SCDA.

As part of the permitting process, Pendarvis had signed an agreement that allowed his crop to be destroyed without compensation if he were found in violation of the law, Keel said.

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"The bottom line," he said, "is that it's not fair to farmers who are trying to do it the right way."

Further complicating the matter is that hemp can be smoked to get the supposed benefits of cannabidiol, or CBD, the non-psychoactive component. Pendarvis reportedly was growing a strain of hemp to be smoked and, about a week after his arrest, Keel said some of the seized crop tested higher than the allowed limit of 0.3% THC.

Regardless, Pendarvis' attorney, Orangeburg Sen. Brad Hutto was aghast at his client's arrest. He questioned if officers violated Pendarvis' right to due process by destroying the crop before he had his day in court. Pendarvis was handcuffed, and his smartphone was taken from him by officers who deleted photos he'd taken of the scene and denied him a call to a lawyer before being taken to jail, being booked and posting bond, he said.

After the passage of the 2018 federal farm bill, which lifted limits on hemp cultivation and delisted the plant as a Schedule I drug, South Carolina farmers began growing the crop under tight state regulations that include background checks, plant testing to ensure it is indeed hemp and not pot, and letting authorities know the precise location of crops.

Hutto said his client changed the location of where one hemp field was supposed to be planted because of weather conditions and notified the SCDA. "He never tried to hide anything."

The popularity of CBD is what's driving the hemp craze, and the market is nearly saturated. Regionally, Kentucky is the leader with about 42,000 acres planted this year, up from 16,000 in 2018, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

But as production spikes nationally, prices are sure to fall. And South Carolina could miss the boat if law enforcement is too heavy-handed.

Depending on how the case plays out, the legislature may well need to revisit the hemp statute and loosen rules for what triggers the destruction of a potentially valuable crop.

This editorial is from The Post and Courier of Charleston via The Associated Press.

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