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Steven Ellis poses for a photo at The Shop by Stevie and The Moon Wednesday, April 3, 2019 in Trenton, Georgia. The Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Drug Task Force, Dade County Sheriff's Office and Trenton Police Department raided Ellis' wellness shop on Thursday, seizing a bunch of CBD products with THC. Ellis said he was unsure of why some of the products were left behind while others were seized.

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Shop raid

TRENTON, Ga. — When Congress legalized hemp as part of its federal farm bill in December, Steven Ellis was prepared to fill the shelves of his wellness store with new products.

Ellis, 37, said he called a contact at the Dade County Sheriff's Office, just for clarity.

"I said, 'I want to sell CBD oil, but I don't want to go to jail,'" he told the Times Free Press this week. "That's word for word. Verbatim. They said, 'These smoke shops, they get busted. They start with CBD products, and they start sneaking in marijuana oil.' I assumed that was full-on marijuana vapes."

It's not clear whether Ellis got bad advice, or if he misunderstood. But his new endeavor got him in trouble last week, when the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Drug Task Force raided his store, The Shop: by Stevie and the Moon on Georgia Highway 136.

Agents said at least one product tested positive for marijuana. They seized 250 items and charged Ellis with distribution of a controlled substance, possession of a Schedule I drug and violation of probation, stemming from a previous arrest from a dark period in his life that involved methamphetamine and a burglary. They also took a log book and money from the cash register and envelopes, which he says would go to vendors who sell products in the shop, like soaps and costume jewelry.

Ellis remained in the Dade County Jail for five days, until he received a $10,000 bond on Tuesday.

"They should have come in, said, 'Hey, we heard you're selling. Please stop,'" said Ellis' friend, Joseph King. "Instead, they came in like he's some big, massive drug dealer. Steven's a good guy. He would never knowingly sell something like that. If he knowingly sold marijuana, why in the world would anybody sell 7 grams of real marijuana for $40?"

Chad Payne, a spokesman for the department, said he does not have any knowledge of a member of the sheriff's office telling Ellis that he could sell these specific products. He said Sheriff Ray Cross told Ellis that he could sell CBD oil, so long as it did not contain THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana that can get you high.

Drug Task Force Commander Dewayne Brown said Ellis was mistaken to believe the federal farm bill gave him the green light to sell some of these products. The farm bill legalized hemp, a fiber from the cannabis plant, so long as its THC level was 0.3 percent or lower. But while Ellis purchased the products online, advertised with proper THC levels, this law still doesn't have weight in Georgia.

The state code defines any part of the cannabis plant as marijuana — hemp included. Adding to the confusion for someone like Ellis? There has been plenty of attention in the Georgia General Assembly this year about the Hemp Farming Act, which passed the Senate on Tuesday and awaits approval from Gov. Brian Kemp.

The act legalizes the cultivation and production of hemp. But the law is not in effect in Georgia yet.

"It's kind of a mess," Brown said. "Hopefully, they'll get it all sorted out."

The drug task force agents took products ranging from CBD gummie candies to dog treats, based off field tests they conducted at the store. The tests involve mixing compounds with the drug, which are supposed to give a physical sign if the drug's makeup matches that of a known, illegal product. However, these tests are notoriously unreliable, said Rik Roberts, a consultant and quality manager at the private Agrolytical Labs.

The task force will send these products to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's crime lab, where investigators can perform more robust tests to get a better picture. For starters, they will more accurately identify the components in the product. They will also be able to see the content — telling officers whether the THC content is above 0.3 percent (the level allowed under federal law and, soon, under state law).

Even so, there is another issue at play. The only charge Ellis faces so far is for the sale of hemp nugs by CBD Genesis. The small balls of leafy substance can be smoked, serving as a quick delivery method for the effects of CBD oil. Ellis said he purchased directly from the maker, and it is advertised as selling under the 0.3 percent THC level. This appears to be a product that — soon, at least — will be legal in Georgia.

But state Rep. John Corbett, R-Lake Park, the sponsor of Georgia's Hemp Farming Act, has some bad news. He told the Times Free Press on Wednesday that his bill allows for the sale of plenty of hemp derivatives. This includes CBD oil, seeds, engineered wood products and clothing.

What it won't include? A leafy product, like Ellis' hemp nug. Law enforcement lobbyists asked for this exception because of the problem with tests. Police officers won't be able to tell from looking at the product whether it's marijuana or hemp. And when they run a field test, they will only know if it contains THC — not what level of THC. This could have led to a long line of improper arrests and a deep backlog in the crime lab.

"You're going to get into a gray area there," Corbett said. "You're not going to be able to distinguish between a hemp nug and marijuana."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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