I’m old enough to recall a time when this would have been considered a far-out proposal, in more ways than one, from a Democrat. With more and more states decriminalizing and legalizing the use of marijuana, it’s not surprising that the case for industrial hemp has come to Congress. And when one considers the context by which it has emerged, the sponsor isn’t terribly surprising, either:
The push to make hemp, a non-psychoactive relative of marijuana, a legal cash crop in the United States got a fresh boost Monday from the country’s most powerful senator.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he will introduce a bill removing hemp from the federal government’s schedule of controlled substances, renewing an effort that has gotten some bipartisan support in recent years — including from McConnell, though never quite so enthusiastically.
“Hemp has played a foundational role in Kentucky’s agricultural heritage, and I believe that it can be an important part of our future,” McConnell said in a statement released by his office. He announced the imminent filing of the bill in Frankfort, the state capital, alongside Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles.
Industrial hemp is a type of cannabis that looks similar to marijuana but contains negligible amounts of the intoxicating component THC. Hemp fibers can be used to make rope, cloth and paper, while hemp oil can be used in cosmetics, food, paper and other products.
At the moment, the federal government lists hemp on the same schedule as marijuana, thanks to the THC that hemp produces — even if it’s much more of a trace element. Distinguishing the difference between the two plants may not be cut-and-dried either, so to speak, which would make enforcement of one and toleration of the other difficult in practice. That is one reason why Congress authorized a pilot program four years ago to see whether hemp legalization is feasible, and so far the results are apparently positive.
So why is Mitch McConnell quarterbacking this, especially with a Republican administration that has been much more hostile to marijuana? Kentucky farmers need a crop to replace tobacco, that’s why:
“I believe hemp has a bright future in our state,” McConnell said. “It’s now time to take the final step and make this a legal crop for every state that wants to file a plan with the U.S. department of agriculture.”
Kentucky has been at the forefront of hemp’s comeback. McConnell said he’s hopeful hemp can do for the state’s economy what the tobacco once did. Kentucky agriculture officials recently approved about 12,000 acres to be grown in the state this year, and 57 Kentucky processors are turning the raw product into a multitude of products.
With societal and legal pressures increasing against tobacco products, the entire region needs to transition from what had been a lucrative agribusiness for centuries. Hemp would certainly assist in that transition, as long as the federal government allows it to be. There seems to be little reason for the Department of Justice to take a hostile stance, at least theoretically, if states offer compliance processes to make sure that hemp farms don’t attempt to moonlight in illegal marijuana cultivation. McConnell pledged to work with Jeff Sessions to make sure the DoJ gets on board.
What might this mean for farmers? Potentially a major new source of income for farmers and some relief from chronic financial strain:
“This is a huge development for the hemp industry,” Steenstra said. “Sen. McConnell’s support is critical to helping us move hemp from research and pilot programs to full commercial production.”
Brian Furnish, an eighth-generation tobacco farmer in Kentucky, has taken the plunge into hemp production. His family will grow about 300 acres (120 hectares) of hemp this year in Harrison County. He’s also part owner of a company that turns hemp into food, fiber and dietary supplements.
Furnish said hemp has the potential to rival or surpass what tobacco production once meant to Kentucky.
“All we’ve got to do is the government get out of the way and let us grow,” he told reporters.
Hemp arguably never belonged on the schedule in the first place. McConnell’s push is well-timed, even for Jeff Sessions, who could use this effort to show that he’s working with states and Congress to narrowly pursue marijuana operations. Let’s hope common sense and opportunity prevail.