Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul Join Forces to Legalize Hemp

The push to legalize domestic hemp production is gaining steam.


Supporters of industrial hemp gained a powerful ally in Washington several weeks ago when Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) joined fellow Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul and Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) as a co-sponsor of S.359, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013. The House companion, sponsored by Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), has 28 co-sponsors. The bills would amend the Controlled Substances Act to exclude industrial hemp, the domestic production of which has been illegal since 1970.

Though manufacturing hemp is currently just as illegal as growing smokable pot, 10 states already have frameworks in place for industrial hemp production. The problem is that the Drug Enforcement Administration classifies all forms of hemp as a controlled substance, despite the fact that industrial hemp generally contains less than 0.3 percent THC, or anywhere between 1/6 to 1/66 the amount you'll find in marijuana. If you tried smoking hemp, you'd exhaust yourself before you got high.

Federal regulations do not differentiate between marijuana and its non-psychoactive cousin, which is used in the production of many useful items, including clothing, rope, biofuel, construction materials, and pulp for paper products. According to David West of the North American Industrial Hemp Council, more hemp products are exported to the United States from places like China and Canada than any other nation on earth.

The most recent victory for industrial hemp at the state level came when SB50, a bill to create a framework for licensure in Kentucky, passed unanimously out of the Senate Agriculture Committee and by 31-6 on the Senate Floor. Sen. Paul (who donned a shirt made of hemp during his testimony), Rep. Massie, Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, and former CIA Director R. James Woolsey all testified in favor of the bill in committee.

"The specter of people getting high on industrial hemp is pretty much exactly like saying you can get drunk on O'Doul's," Woolsey testified. But there's another angle to the anti-hemp argument. Law enforcement groups claim hemp farmers could cultivate marijuana with substantial amounts of THC among an industrial hemp crop. Woolsey debunked this notion, saying marijuana growers would "hate the idea of having industrial hemp anywhere near" their crops because cross-pollination leads to less THC in marijuana, rather than more THC in hemp. As Reason's Jacob Sullum has noted, "In Colorado… 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."

American policymakers have had a love-hate relationship with hemp. Despite being widely produced in colonial America and grown by some of the Founding Fathers, the U.S. government can't seem to make up its mind about the plant. The U.S. allowed domestic hemp for nearly two centuries before passing the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which imposed onerous licensing requirements and taxes on hemp producers. When Japan invaded the Philippines in 1941, thereby cutting off the U.S. Navy from its sole provider for rope fiber, the U.S. launched the "Hemp for Victory" campaign, which sparked Kentucky's hemp farming revival. The Feds reversed their stance yet again with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970.

Hemp is also a historically popular crop in Kentucky. In 2002, Purdue University released a study claiming that "[f]rom the end of the Civil War until 1912, virtually all hemp in the U.S. was produced in Kentucky." Even today, industrial hemp farming would have tangible benefits for Kentucky, where tobacco has waned in recent years. Congressman Massie, who operates a family farm in Garrison, Kentucky, has taken the lead on legalizing industrial hemp in the House. In a recent press release, he said,

Industrial hemp is a sustainable crop and could be a great economic opportunity for Kentucky farmers. My wife and I are raising our children on the tobacco and cattle farm where my wife grew up. Tobacco is no longer a viable crop for many of us in Kentucky and we understand how hard it is for a family farm to turn a profit.  Industrial hemp will give small farmers another opportunity to succeed.

Despite testimony from an all-star lineup in the Kentucky Senate Agriculture Committee, the measure faces a "tougher time" passing the House, according to Speaker Greg Stumbo; and it will face an even greater challenge making it past Governor Steve Beshear, who sympathizes with Kentucky's anti-hemp law enforcement community.

Nevertheless, half of Kentucky's congressional delegation supports the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013 and state Agriculture Commissioner Jim Comer said it was a "top priority" for Kentucky's agriculture lobby. McConnell, whose increasingly amiable relationship with Rand Paul seems to be making him lean in a slightly more libertarian direction, explained in a joint statement with the junior senator from Kentucky:

I am proud to introduce legislation with my friend Rand Paul that will allow Kentucky farmers to harness the economic potential that industrial hemp can provide. During these tough economic times, this legislation has the potential to create jobs and provide a boost to Kentucky's economy and to our farmers and their families.

Relaxing restrictions on industrial hemp production would allow American farmers to successfully compete. Under the current restrictions, American consumers are sending hundreds of thousands of dollars abroad annually and creating jobs in China, Canada, and elsewhere rather than buying products made from hemp that has been grown in the U.S.A.