CHARLOTTE – As North Carolina debates legalizing medical marijuana, hemp farmers and retailers remain in limbo.

Most say they are excited to finally see some progress on this front.

“If we are so fortunate as to get a license, we are absolutely ready to do that,” said Queen Hemp Company co-owner Nicole Burnette.  “We have capacity to cover extraction, bottling and manufacturing as well as retail.”

In 2014, she started Rogue Farms, a Charlotte-based urban hydroponic farm. Four years later, she and business partner Gail Syfert launched Queen Hemp Company as another layer.

In a 10,000-square-foot growing facility in a suburb of Charlotte, she currently grows 1,800 hemp plants of different varieties.  She sells online and has more than 150 wholesalers across 50 U.S. states. She also works with many North Carolina local brick-and-mortar CBD stores.

The Queen Hemp Company’s Flower Room

Still, she, along with many other farmers and retailers, have a lot of questions.

“I’d like to see more clarity around regulation, eligibility and implementation,” said Burnette.

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Dan Sturdevant, managing director of Nature’s Highway, a seed-to-sale industrial hemp startup headquartered in Charlotte, is also watching closely.

“For the CBD industry, the challenge will remain the same as the last several years—namely being agile and responsive enough to the changing commodity and consumer markets that you can still meet your customers needs and remain in business,” said Sturdevant.

“The prices of bulk CBD oil, biomass, and other cannabinoids extracts are still very volatile, and as more states create and expand programs to grow hemp, the market may continue to be unpredictable for the next few years.  Brands who can stake out a reputation for quality, reliable customer service, and consistency in their products efficacy will be the ones well positioned to succeed once the market does stabilize.  Whether medical marijuana, or even recreational marijuana legislation, is passed, there will still be a market for quality CBD products at affordable prices.”

In the meantime, many are branching out into the Delta-8 THC business.  It’s the less-potent, less well-known cousin of Delta-9 THC, the chief psychoactive compound in marijuana, and it’s a booming business, especially in states like North Carolina, where marijuana remains illegal.

Burnette believes the public rush is just a “veiled demand” for marijuana.

“If we had legalization of some sort, Delta-8 would be a non-issue,” she says.

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Fair and equitable?

North Carolina is one of 13 states where marijuana is illegal.

Senate Bill 711, described as one the most conservative across the nation last month, wouldn’t make pot fully legal — it would still be against the law for most people to use it.

But it would recognize marijuana as having medical potential and authorize doctors to prescribe it to patients in certain cases. It would not allow for purposes like chronic pain, mental health issues and opioid use reduction.

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That’s too restrictive, argue many advocates.

“You hear every day about people who hear stories from family members who are like, ‘I think my kid would have been alive if he had this instead of opioids or alcohol,'” said Sean Parekh, owner of a Chapel Hill CBD.  “Depression is a real thing; mood disorders are a real thing.  It’s not just the physical ailments that we need to look into.”

Others are worried about getting shut out of the market. The bill calls for ten licenses that will allow up to four locations per license (up to 40 dispensaries total) to be issued for 100 counties.

“The biggest challenge I see going forward is fairness,” said Tanya Durand, owner of The Hemp Store with locations in Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Wake Forest.  “It seems that the industry is already being handed over to large corporations and small businesses, like my own, will have to fight against them to even be considered.”

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Still, she’s reserving final judgment for now.

“We hope in the following weeks that amendments will be made to create more opportunities for those of us who have been paving the way for cannabis in North Carolina, and allow more people to access the cannabis medicine they need.”

The Hemp Store’s Tanya Durand working behind the “Flower Bar” in Chapel Hill

Back in Charlotte, Burnette also remains positive.

“There is, and will continue to be, consumer interest in the hemp industry,” she said.  “There’s a customer base that desires the wellness benefits without psychotropic effects. Plant-based wellness, whether it be hemp derived, or medical marijuana, comes in many forms and developing a healthy market around personal choice is important,” Burnett says.

A poll from Elon University, published in February, found that 73% of North Carolinians—including nearly two-thirds of Republicans—would support the legalization of medical marijuana and 54% of North Carolinians would support full legalization.

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