"Nobody Knows Anything." Farmers Struggle to Navigate Georgia's Half-Baked Hemp Law
Interview and photos by Laura Williams for Peachtree NORML.
[Throughout this piece, click Barry Smith's quotes to hear his voice. Audio may open in a new tab.]
On a narrow rural road through the frosty, forested hills of North Georgia, we find Smith Nursery, where most of Georgia’s high-cannabinoid hemp strains are born.
Well, not born but cloned, in the greenhouses surrounding a converted horse barn Barry Smith built for his daughter.
“You know how it is, she went off to college and poof… no more horses,” Barry says with a shrug. So Barry built greenhouses on the pasture land beneath their family home. He had some experience: two Smith Nursery locations once supplied thousands of flowering annuals to a national home improvement chain, and landscape plants to many of Atlanta’s downtown attractions.
After hearing from farmers on the West Coast that hemp was the new cash crop, Barry decided to try his hand at growing hemp and cannabis.
“I was almost retired,” Barry told Peachtree NORML on the December morning we toured his farm. “I just wanted to be a clone grower for a couple seasons and then go fish. But nobody can sell their [crop], because of all these problems.”
Instead, he’s become the unofficial cannabis liaison for North Georgia farmers, pioneering both the growing techniques and the logistics of a recently re-legalized industry.
North Georgia farmers are Barry’s community, a family he’s belonged to all his life. To ethically sell hemp clones to farmers, he felt a responsibility to ensure that farmers who bought from him could get their investment back and bring a finished crop to market.
Protecting his buyers meant navigating the Georgia Hemp Program at the Georgia Department of Agriculture. Barry has a calm certainty, a gravitational pull toward the way things must be done: the right way. The right way for farmers, buyers, the land, and the plant. But Barry ran headfirst into the state’s self-contradictory regulations and their erratic enforcement. He’s determined, first, to do things right, and then second, if at all possible, to be in compliance with the state’s baffling laws.
Before his political fight could begin, Barry fought a personal battle with the legacy of prohibition: the assumption that cannabis was dangerously evil.
Overcoming “Reefer Madness”
“Your battle is my generation,” Barry Smith told me, adjusting a faded baseball cap over his silver-white hair.
This is why he’s agreed to meet with Peachtree NORML, what he hopes we can do to help.
“It’s the public misconceptions - that this plant is scary, that every neighborhood in Georgia is just going to go completely to hell and explode. The regular hemp farmers need your help so bad. ”
In addition to the economics of keeping Georgia farmers afloat, Barry’s passionate about good plant genetics and the science of growing a clean, safe crop. His CBD-rich hemp is raised to be "inhalable," or it can be made into oils or topical salves. “I don’t give a crap about the rest of it,” he says. “I have never smoked it in my life.” But he’s seen CBD oils, extracted from Georgia-grown hemp plants, provide medical benefits for many.
“God put enough crap on this planet for us to take care of ourselves,” says Barry, leaning his desk chair back with a philosophical shrug. “We’re just too damn stupid to do it. Politics get in the way and fear gets in the way, and sometimes it’s financial.”
Once he was sold on CBD’s potential, Barry Smith applied for a state license to grow hemp. He was approved, underwent a background check, was fingerprinted. He walked the perimeter of his greenhouses with a state inspector and dropped pins at the coordinates where he would grow. He signed an agreement that state inspectors, local law enforcement, even drones and aircraft could inspect his crop, on his land, at any time.
And before his hemp grower’s license came through, Barry Smith did one more thing, the most difficult thing. He moved his wife out of their home of 20 years, helped her pack and leave the house overlooking the farm, where they’d raised their children.
He was so conditioned to fear this plant and the people associated with it that he worried for her safety, and her reputation. Twenty years she’d taught Sunday school at the Methodist Church in Acworth, and Barry had been a deacon. He couldn't bear to make her the subject of meanness and gossip, even shunning, when people found out Barry had “gone into drug dealing.”
“Now for the shocker...." he pauses for dramatic effect, then throws his hands in the air. “Nobody gives a rat’s butt!” The Licensed Hemp Grower sign on Barry’s front gate attracted less attention than he’d expected, and no condemnation at all. A neighbor whose disapproval Barry feared most, a stern woman with centuries-old roots on this mountain, is now the number one follower of his grow’s Facebook page. “We feel like a bunch of old idiots,” he said of the plan to move his wife away.
The plant’s mystique has its advantages. Barry employs several young growers who document their experiments with the plant’s growing cycle, lighting, soil additives, and strains. Working with Barry means hands-on training with large-scale cannabis cultivation. “They want to work with this plant. It isn’t really about the industrial or even the medicinal,” he says, “It’s about what’s coming here in a few years.”
Georgia’s Half-Baked Hemp Program
Smith Nursery has become a laboratory of cultivation, but also a testing ground for compliance with Georgia’s peculiar and poorly informed cannabis laws. Barry does his best to operate within the law, and goes well beyond what’s required by the imprecise and inconsistent terms of his growing license.
Hemp as a material is extremely cost effective. But for the farmer, hemp’s learning curve can be expensive and risky. CBD-dominant buds suitable for “inhalables” like joints or CBD oil can’t be grown outdoors without mold, and either pests or pesticides. Cannabis-hemp plants can grow in many conditions - it’s a weed, after all - but Barry isn’t growing the hemp used for cloth fibers or building materials. He’s growing a product people will put into their bodies, and he takes that responsibility seriously.
The state’s inconsistent, sometimes incoherent, hemp laws are making things worse for Georgia’s small businesses, especially farmers. State legislators were tasked with writing legislation to allow growing, but they knew very little about the plant or the industry. State regulators only cared that the level of THC (the psychoactive compound that causes cannabis “high" in the body) was low enough to qualify as “industrial hemp.”
Barry turned to the University of Georgia for help, to Tim Coolong, a plant science professor whom Barry calls, “the kid.”
“So the kid started and ran the hemp program for Georgia. He is running all over the state doing trials and forging relationships and helping us ease into it.” Barry gathered bulk data for Coolong’s research, and acted as intermediary between the hemp program and local farmers.
But in August 2020, just as the buds formed on Barry's cannabis clones, amid pandemic lockdowns and strapped state budgets, the University of Georgia lost 14 percent of its budget across the board. The hemp program was abandoned and Coolong returned to the classroom in a suddenly understaffed department.
The agriculturists whom Barry knew well, he refers to by their specialties. “We lost the peach lady, the pecan lady, two blueberry people,” and any support for farmers in the nascent hemp program.
The next person Barry turned to was Terry Hollifield, the 74-year old state agriculture inspector who’d be monitoring Barry’s cannabis crop. Hollifield certifies Georgia's organic farms and advises farmers on crop improvement but, Barry says “his forte is cotton and peanuts and old tractors,” not cannabis.
For more than 80 years, it was illegal to grow hemp or cannabis plants in Georgia, even for agricultural or medical research.
“It’s not that they didn’t try,” says Barry of the Georgia regulators, shaking his head. “It’s just...nobody knows anything.”
By the height of the growing season in 2020, Barry’s clones occupied neat rows in five- and ten- acre greenhouses all over North Georgia. He’d helped dozens of farmers get background checks and state licenses, specific to the number of acres and hemp-cannabis plants.
In August, about eight weeks into the growing cycle, Barry’s flip phone started ringing nonstop.
The first trichome-rich, distinctive smelling sticky buds had farmers panicky. Barry’s buyers, who’d invested their seed money in hemp plants, still weren’t sure whether they were growing a legal product or an illegal one. This was no ordinary harvest.
"If it’s above 0.3% [THC] when the state tester Mr. Terry Hollifield comes to collect the sample, then you’ve got to burn your whole crop,” Barry explains, gesturing expansively to the rows of rich green. “And these [farmers] have just got through battle with fire ants, battling worms, battling fungus, battling three hurricanes, 20 inches above normal rainfall…” Still the farmer does not know if he can sell his crop.
In the meantime, it’s Schrodinger’s plant: it’s both a legal product the state charged Barry $25,000 for a license to grow AND it’s a Schedule I drug that’s illegal to grow, sell, or mail. And again, no one in Bartow County can tell which, at any stage from seed to sale.
A handful of labs, notably SJ Lab and Analytics in Macon and a few in neighboring states, can certify samples for Georgia growers.
"So then it gets down to the technical nitty gritty,” Barry explains, “and that means lab tests. Every time you send a sample off, it’s $26 and something cents for Priority Mail and $65 for the test.” He spins a plastic binder toward me, full of detailed compliance tests, pages of moisture analysis, analytes, and the all-important THC levels.
No small farmer can determine on-site whether a given plant is “hot,” meaning it contains more than the state-legal amount of THC. At best, failing a surprise inspection could result in the crop - and the farmer’s investment - going up in smoke. At worst, it might land a farmer prison. Critically, no one seemed to know which was more likely.
"Are We Criminals?"
"Sometimes you just have to operate in the gray because the black and white is not so defined." Barry planted three different strains growing side by side, two of which tested as legal (containing notable therapeutic CBD, but almost no psychoactive THC). The third crop, a strain called Cherry, planted between the other two, tested over the THC limit and illegal to have in Georgia.
Concentrations of the active compounds in cannabis-hemp plants vary based on many factors. There is no "certified seed" program as exists in some other states, to help control for genetics. Variations in how and when the plants are watered or fed nutrients, the composition of the soil, all can impact the concentration of these compounds, often unpredictably. The crop has only recently been tracked as an agricultural product, and there are many unknowns that may push a farmer above or below legal limits of the only compound Georgia requires testing.
State inspector Hollifield comes to each farm to confirm that the buds are below the state’s THC threshold. He shakes the farmer’s hand and the farmer signs a pledge to harvest that crop within 15 days.
But within that 15 days, the plant continues to mature, and THC levels may rise.
"When that stuff is harvested, it's gonna be well over 0.3 [percent THC]" says Barry, his slow drawl accelerating with frustration. "There’s nothing in the program rules or laws or whatever that says anything about that. Are we criminals?" Farmers are given parameters, and stayed within the parameters, got the green light from the state inspector. "The farmer stayed in the window even though it ‘bout gave him a heart attack and took 5 years off his life.”
But even if the farmer does all he can to comply, he may still end up with a crop he can't sell.
One last certificate of analysis is offered on the final product, dried and ground. If THC levels there are above 0.3 percent, smoke shops in Georgia may refuse to buy the smokable CBD from farmers.
"The smoke shop goes, ‘Oh God, no, no, get thee behind me, Satan,'" as they don't want to be caught with a high-THC product on their shelves. "You’ve got this legal product you can’t sell to anyone because nobody knows what’s legal. But you can drive 53 minutes straight north and as soon as you cross the state line, their level in Tennessee is 1.6.”
Tennessee's legal THC limit is five times higher than Georgia’s. Buyers there will accept Georgia-grown products that can’t be sold in Georgia - but that means transporting an illegal product across state lines.
Transportation is one of the most troubling gray areas of the patchwork of cannabis and hemp laws in Georgia. The farmer bought a license from the state to grow a plant - but how does the farmer bring his product to market? Most local officers can identify cannabis by sight and smell, but they don't even know Georgia has a legal hemp program.
Neither the local law enforcement nor the farmer can measure the THC inside the plant tissue. To know if it’s within legal limits, the farmer must get the sample to a lab, either by mail or on Georgia’s roads, and find out when the lab results come back if he committed a crime.
Barry bought another $25,000 state processor license this year to help protect the growers in his immediate network.
“To run cover for everybody else out there, another 25 grand. Right? Because nobody knows the rules or the laws.”
When he hands us a packet of samples of smokable material, he folds a photocopy of the state hemp processor's license around it.
"It's terrible, that paranoia," says Barry. "Even though somebody don't smoke, even though somebody don't buy, right? Just trying to navigate through it... It's gut-wrenching."
That gut-wrenching worry, fearing for his freedom and his family's safety, those are the result of prohibition, of misinformation. The confusion among agriculture regulators, law enforcement, and lawyers, all of whom are navigating piecemeal cannabis policy. The lack of local knowledge from universities and public-sector specialists who usually help small farmers. The secrecy, the ignorance, the fear. This is the legacy of cannabis prohibition.
Armed with evidence and experience, Barry Smith is creating space for farmers in the (re)legalization conversation, and setting a new standard for how Georgia talks about cannabis laws.
Barry Smith is a father, a farmer, a cannabis grower. Barry Smith is NORML.
Special thanks to Barry Smith at Smith Nursery in Emerson, GA, for the tour and the interview. Watch this space for more stories about the diverse cannabis community of Georgia. If you'd like to participate in our cannabis "coming out" campaign, #IamNORML, please contact [email protected] DOT com.