Since opening his first Crowntown Cannabis location — then called Charlotte CBD — in east Charlotte in 2018, Michael Sims has moved comfortably in what could sometimes be considered a gray area.
Sims was under the impression that he was given the green light to sell hemp products by the passing of the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill, followed by a statewide pilot program allowing those who obtain a license in North Carolina to grow industrial hemp.
“Ultimately, we were okay with the gray area at first because we didn’t think it was that gray,” Sims tells Queen City Nerve. “Here’s the clearly defined definition of what hemp is by Congress. It’s no longer under the DEA. It’s now under the USDA. Here’s the rules. Okay, we’ll follow them.”
And follow them he did, as Sims and his partners have rapidly expanded their business, opening a second location in Columbia, South Carolina the following year and opening two more in the Charlotte area since — one in NoDa and another in Concord.
But on Jan. 18, things got a lot grayer for Sims after the Columbia Crowntown Cannabis store was raided by Columbia police and the state’s South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED). During the raid, agents confiscated pounds of inventory from the shop that they “perceived to be marijuana,” arresting the store manager and charging her with conspiracy to sell marijuana.
Sims and his team dispute any such allegations, stating that all product in the store was hemp flower, which he believed to be legal in both North and South Carolina as long as it stayed below the .03% THC level stated in law.
What SLED and other law enforcement agencies are acting on, however, is not law but a 2021 opinion issued by South Carolina’s Attorney General stating that all delta-8 products should be considered illegal.
Delta-8-THC is a chemical compound similar to the delta-9-THC that gives marijuana its psychoactive effect, though it is slightly less potent. While synthetic delta-8 is considered a controlled substance by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, delta-8 derived from hemp, like that sold by Crowntown Cannabis, is not.
Since the South Carolina Attorney General issued his 2021 opinion, which has not been codified into law, Sims says he has gotten mixed messages about what is allowed and what is not.
“It really comes down to not only interpretation of different law enforcement by county and by division, but I’m even seeing division within the law enforcement offices themselves,” Sims says. “Sometimes you ask questions about the legalities of these things, you could get several different answers from even calling one police department. And I sympathize to a certain point with law enforcement because they’re simply trying to enforce law, but at the same time, they’re left in a gray area, we’re left in a gray area, and it’s just a very disheartening place to be.”
Much of the confusion has involved flower, unprocessed hemp material that resembles marijuana — the “green, leafy-like substance” confiscated by law enforcement during the January raid.
Sims says he has been told by law enforcement in the past that he cannot have hemp flower on display in jars as he once did in the shop, so he moved it to the back and made it so customers had to order from a menu at the front of the shop.
Immediately following the raid, Sims and his team were told that everything that had been confiscated was “hot,” meaning it had tested positive for marijuana, a claim that Sims found to be impossible since the testing process can take a long time.
Nearly a month after the raid, Columbia Police confirmed to The State newspaper that they had not received official results back from any testing carried out by SLED.
Sims said he and his staff send product out for testing regularly and acknowledged that testing can be unreliable and inconsistent when it comes to flower.
“The problem with flower is you could test an entire crop and every test result is going to be different,” he said. “You could test the same exact plant and you’re going to get different results. It’s a plant … So that margin of error is scary.”
He also explained that flower can become decarboxylated when exposed to heat, which increases the THC level and can cause a positive test result.
Sims says he’s been left to figure out what’s going on by reading news reports about his own store, many of which paint him and his employees as criminals just for doing their job. According to Sims, an undercover law enforcement officer came into the store before the raid to attempt to buy hemp flower and was told by the manager that they would have to order online.
Upon following up for recommendations, the manager allegedly told the officer that one of the options was “fire,” which the officer took to mean marijuana. “Fire” is a slang term meaning “high quality” that’s often used to describe anything from food to music.
After ordering flower online to a South Carolina address, Columbia PD and SLED used the delivery as probable cause for a search warrant, arresting the manager and placing her in jail.
“She’s a single mom of two and pregnant with the third,” Sims explains. “She had to spend overnight in jail and we couldn’t get her out because they don’t have night court, and she’s having to go to therapy for the traumatic stress that she went through over this.”
The manager has only recently returned to work but still suffers from severe bouts of anxiety related to the raid both in and out of the shop.
It doesn’t help that so many local media outlets ran the story without much info, publishing the manager’s mugshot and running with the unchallenged version of events that law enforcement fed them.
“We were portrayed in the news and the media like we were some kind of drug lords, and they plastered my employee’s picture all over everything and just made us look horrible,” he says. “They were calling it marijuana that day, and there’s no way that testing was done that day within an hour of the raid, so I feel like we were ultimately guilty until proven innocent.”
Crowntown Cannabis was closed for nine days following the raid and have suffered hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses thanks to a drop in sales, which are down 50% at the Columbia shop, on top of lawyers’ fees.
Columbia Police have stated publicly since the raid that flower is illegal to sell in South Carolina and they may soon begin taking action against processed delta-8 products like gummies and cartridges, a move that would likely force Sims to close his Columbia shop.
As an advocate who has spent years lobbying for full marijuana legalization both statewide and federally, the entire experience has been a step backwards for the small-business owner, he says.
“This is not in the public interest,” Sims told Queen City Nerve. “The public is pretty angry and upset anytime these arrests are made for cannabis. The constituents out there, over 90% of America in most polls want some legal access to cannabis, and since 2018, I felt like we were moving forward towards progression and legalization. But really, specifically in 2023, I feel like we’re heading in reverse.”
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