Pittsboro hemp dispensary owner has reservations about medical marijuana bill

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PITTSBORO — Aaron Puryear has been one of the co-owners of Oak City Hemp — located at The Plant in Pittsboro — since the company’s inception in 2018, when hemp-derived products were federally legalized across the United States.

“We started out as more of a little side thing just so we could have safe and reliable access to a local hemp-based product, and then it quickly transformed into a business,” Puryear said.

But Puryear’s business — and many like it — may have future competition: medical cannabis.

The North Carolina State Senate proposed late last August Senate Bill 711, also known as the N.C. Compassionate Care Act, which would legalize the use of cannabis to treat a wide variety of ailments and illnesses, including epilepsy, cancer, HIV/AIDS, PTSD and more.

Hemp-based products, such as CBD and other molecules found in hemp (known as cannabinoids), were federally legalized in 2018 through the passage of the Farm Bill. To be classified as a hemp-derived product, the THC content of the product must be 0.3% or less of its dry weight, according to the Farm Bill, which is a low enough concentration to ensure users don’t experience the “high” associated with cannabis.

Some legal hemp-derived products, though, offer psychoactive effects similar to marijuana, according to Puryear. The two main forms of hemp on the market in North Carolina are CBD — which does not have psychoactive properties — and Delta-8 THC, which provides users with a similar “high” the THC found in marijuana, known as Delta-9 THC, gives.

“Legally, I have access to every cannabinoid the cannabis plant has to offer with hemp, and there’s over 100 known cannabinoids,” Puryear said. “I tell people all the time legalization is here — it’s just in a different form than most people expected.”

Oak City Hemp is located at The Plant in Pittsboro. / Staff photo by Kim Hawks

For some, legalization is not here in the way they wish.

Pittsboro resident Corbie Hill used to be a cannabis user — as someone who was diagnosed with chronic leukemia and anxiety, he said he used marijuana to help manage his pain and anxiety symptoms. He said he believes both medical and recreational use of marijuana should be legalized in North Carolina.

“Sometimes the federal model is nothing shy of ridiculous — places like North Carolina are stuck in a very 20th century War on Drugs prohibition, while in other states it’s finally no big deal,” Hill said. “Legalize it, pardon people — statistically, these are largely people of color — who are serving unjust sentences for simple possession, and pay them reparations.”

The Compassionate Care Act would allow for 10 medical marijuana licenses to be given to 10 suppliers. Each supplier would be able to open four medical marijuana dispensaries, two of which would have to be in “Tier 1 counties,” which are designated as the 40 most economically-distressed counties in North Carolina. Chatham County is considered a “Tier 3” county by the state, or one of the least economically distressed.

Even so, as currently written, the bill stipulates that only suppliers with over five years of experience of operating a legal dispensary can qualify for a supplier license. Puryear said many small, local businesses in North Carolina would not be able to qualify for the license needed to sell marijuana unless they have connections to people with experience in “legal” states.

“It’s effectively shutting out those North Carolinians and pushing them out of state, unless they have some real connections,” Puryear said. “That’s really the only option with the potential bill that they’re pushing, and the only way that they’ll be able to effectively have a local presence in the industry.”

Rep. Robert Reives (D-Dist. 54) of Chatham County called the N.C. Compassionate Care Act “another opportunity for us to help people who are suffering in North Carolina.”

“We should not be limiting ourselves in terms of what care doctors can provide their patients,” Reives said. “I hope that the Senate can pass this legislation during the short session and that the House will consider it soon. North Carolinians deserve these options to alleviate some of the pain and trauma that so many deal with.”

Puryear said while medical cannabis would be beneficial to a lot of people, he does not have a lot of hope when it comes to the likelihood of the passage of SB 711.

He said North Carolina legislators’ relationship with the cannabis industry has been a tumultuous one — with politicians leading a charge in 2019 to make CBD products illegal. While those politicians did not succeed in banning hemp-based products, Puryear fears those same anti-cannabis sentiments will prevent the bill from passing.

“We’re just barely two years removed from fighting for smokable hemp and keeping smokable hemp legal, and we spent pretty much the summer of 2019 fighting that,” Puryear said. “We kind of won that day, but that’s still fresh in my mind.”

The bill was reffered to the “Rule and Operations” Senate committee on August 2; no action regarding the bill has been taken since.

Oak City Hemp sells its own lines of CBD products. / Staff photo by Kim Hawks

If the General Assembly were to pass medical marijuana legislation, Puryear fears politicians may be considering this as a financial move for their personal gain, rather than a service many North Carolinians could benefit from.

He said in states where marijuana is legal, some politicians have taken advantage of obtaining a license to open their own dispensaries.

“It’s been the case in some states where legislators in the state have been outspoken against cannabis, then they change their minds, and then they’re all for it and then they end up getting a license,” Puryear said. “When a state goes legal, the companies that execute and are able to stay in business, it’s a lot easier to make money in the first couple of years. After about two or three years, the margins get really thin, the competition’s thicker and it’s just a lot harder to make it.”

SB 711 would force suppliers to pay “a $50,000 nonrefundable fee, plus $5,000 for each production facility or medical cannabis center the applicant proposes to operate under the license.”

The cost to receive a medical cannabis supplier license would provide barriers for several local businesses across the state, according to Puryear. Not only does this put North Carolinians in need of marijuana treatment in a difficult position, Puryear claims this would harm many small, local CBD and Delta-8 dispensaries who have worked hard in the industry to make a name for themselves.

“The most common barrier to entry is just money,” he said. “I don’t think the bill is going to get much traction, and if it does, it’s going to be because of who the bill was written for, aka corporate cannabis guys.”

While medical cannabis legalization may be in the air, Puryear said he believes hemp and cannabis have a place in Chatham County. Hemp has uses other than its ingestible form — such as rope, fiber, plastics and other materials used in everyday life, which is known as industrial hemp. Chatham County has become a hub for industrial hemp farms, including some of the largest producers in the state.

Puryear said the cannabis and hemp industry have evolved so much in the few years he has been a part of it, and he expects industrial hemp production to be the next step on the road to legalization.

“Chatham County had the most hemp growers in the state out of any county,” Puryear said. “We’re getting to the point where they are starting to develop in-use industrial hemp products, so that’s really going to move the hemp fiber and seed industry forward in the next five years.”

Oak City Hemp is “in it for the long-haul,” according to Puryear. He said he wants to continue to provide his customers with what he believes are quality products, as well as continue to educate Chatham residents about cannabis and its potential health benefits.

By doing so, Puryear hopes to be able to provide a safe environment for conversations surrounding what he calls “smart regulations” for medical — possibly recreational — cannabis use.

“The most important thing to do to address the stigma around cannabis is to educate the consumer,” he said. “We need people pushing the new narrative that it’s not about hemp or weed: it’s about cannabis. It’s the same compounds, the same plant and they’re not dangerous. We don’t need to just regulate our industry based around fear, which is what happens.”

Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at theeden@chathamnr.com.

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