Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recently came out in favor of legalizing hemp cultivation, thanks to the persuasive talents of fellow Kentucky senator Rand Paul and the state's agriculture commssioner, James Comer, both Republicans. The New York Times cites McConnell's conversion as evidence that the cause, long identified with hippies and stoners, has gained respectability among conservatives. The fact that it has taken so long is testimony to the plant's powerful symbolism, because there is no logical reason to stop farmers from growing industrial hemp, a version of cannabis with negligible THC, even if you support marijuana prohibition. "The specter of people getting high on industrial hemp," former CIA Director R. James Woolsey noted at a Kentucky State Senate hearing on Monday, "is pretty much exactly like saying you can get drunk on O'Doul's." Testifying at the same hearing, Paul pointed out that other countries where marijuana is illegal (including China, for crying out loud) nevertheless manage to allow hemp cultivation. "It's a crop that's legal everywhere else in the world except the United States," he said.
Seizing upon an old anti-hemp canard, Kenucky State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer worried that marijuana growers would hide their crop in fields of hemp. "They are identical in appearance when it comes to the naked eye," he warned. But as Woolsey observed, no marijuana grower in his right mind would want his plants anywhere near a hemp farm, since cross-pollination would ruin his crop. In Colorado, where the same ballot initiative that legalized marijuana for recreational use also calls for the legalization of hemp, the managers of indoor marijuana grows (currently serving the medical market) are worried about drifting pollen from hemp farms, which could make their plants go to seed instead of producing lots of lovely buds and resin. Yet prohibitionists like Brewer claim that pot growers will put their plants smack dab in the middle of hemp fields. "You'd think you're at a DEA hearing," Paul said in exasperation.
The same emotional impulse that explains why the U.S. has to import all the hemp fiber, seeds, and oil it uses was also at the root of the Drug Enforcement Administration's efforts to ban not only hemp farms but hemp products. The DEA, which ultimately was slapped down by the courts, simply could not tolerate an industry linked to the Weed With Roots in Hell, even though none of its products was psychoactive. But as Mitch McConnell finally realized, "the utilization of hemp to produce everything from clothing to paper is real," even if drug warriors prefer not to think about it. Jack Herer would be pleased.