Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Effort to fully legalize hemp gets big push from McConnell, who says it can be distinguished from marijuana

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced yesterday that he will introduce legislation to legalize hemp as an agricultural product, remove it from the federal list of controlled substances, and shift regulatory authority mostly to states. The Hemp Farming Act of 2018 will be co-sponsored by fellow Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the second largest hemp producer; U.S. Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., is sponsoring a companion House bill, reports WKYT-TV of Lexington, Ky.

McConnell, Commissioner Ryan Quarles (Ky. Dept. of Agriculture)
"We all are so optimistic that industrial hemp can become, sometime in the future, what burley tobacco was in Kentucky's past," McConnell said at a national hemp roundtable in Lexington with Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles. Kentucky once had more tobacco farmers than any other state, but McConnell helped wean them off tobacco in 2004 with a bill that ended federal support for the crop and compensated them for their federal production quotas. He noted that land, buildings and equipment used for tobacco can easily be used to grow and harvest hemp.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is strongly opposed to the legalization of marijuana, and some law-enforcement leaders oppose hemp legalization, saying the crops are indistinguishable. But McConnell said, "Most members of the Senate understand that these are two very different plants," and said he would stress that to Sessions, a former Senate colleague.

A 2015 study identified a gene that distinguishes hemp from marijuana, "likely due to the breeding of the plants for radically different uses." There are three species of cannabis, the scientific name of the plant; "hemp" and "marijuana" describe the crops produced from cannabis sativa, Business Insider reports. Marijuana producers generally remove male plants to force females to produce more buds, which have the highest concentration of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive ingredient. Current law says the plant is marijuana, not hemp, if it is more than 0.3 percent THC.

McConnell's efforts to increase hemp production may help persuade doubters that he will seek re-election in 2020, which he has said he is doing. "Several GOP senators said privately that they believe McConnell is far more likely than not to run again," Burgess Everett reports for Politico. The Farm Bill expires this year, and McConnell's hemp proposal could be included in a new one. It would also allow hemp researchers to apply for grants through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

McConnell has gradually ramped up his supporter of hemp, following the lead of Paul, who was elected in 2010, and Comer, who was elected agriculture commissioner in 2011 and ran for governor in 2015. McConnell saw that the 2014 Farm Bill allowed state agriculture departments to undertake experimental hemp projects, and that helped put his state at the forefront of hemp's comeback. "It's now time to take the final step and make this a legal crop," McConnell said. "We're going to give everything we've got to pull it off."

So far, 34 states have authorized hemp research and 19 have production programs, Bruce Schreiner reports for The Associated Press. Kentucky planted 3,100 acres in 2017, third among the states. Oregon was second with 3,469 acres and Colorado first with 9,700, according to Vote Hemp. Nationally, there were 25,541 acres in 2017, more than double the 9,770 of 2016.

Vote Hemp map; click on the image for a larger version.

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