Will a Congressional Rebuke Stop the DEA From Treating Hemp Like Pot?
During a speech to a law enforcement conference last January, Michele Leonhart, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, reportedly said the lowest point of her 33-year career with the DEA came when a hemp flag flew over the Capitol last July 4. In Leonhart's mind, that banner, made from the fibers of marijuana's nonpsychoactive cousin, was a flag of surrender in the war on drugs, even though many countries manage to allow hemp cultivation while continuing to ban pot. Like anti-smoking activists who irrationally oppose noncombusting, tobacco-free electronic cigarettes, Leonhart objects to hemp because it superficially resembles a hated symbol. And even though a flag made from hemp looks just like a flag made from cotton, knowing which plant provided the material was enough not just to irritate or anger Leonhart but to depress her more than anything else in three decades of fighting the never-ending, always failing war on drugs.
Given that mind-set, it is not surprising that the DEA has tried to obstruct the hemp cultivation experiments permitted by the farm bill that Congress approved in February, projects that 15 states have authorized so far. Last month Customs and Border Patrol agents, acting under instructions from the DEA, seized 250 pounds of hemp seeds from Italy and China intended for pilot farming projects in Kentucky. The feds backed down only after Kentucky's agriculture commissioner filed a lawsuit. A few weeks later, as Elizabeth Nolan Brown noted, the House of Representatives approved two amendments aimed at stopping such interference by votes of 246 to 162 and 237 to 170, respectively. Last Thursday the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a similar measure by a vote of 22 to 8. Those votes show that, contrary to what Leonhart seems to think, hemp boosters, who include Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), are not synonymous with pot enthusiasts (although, to be fair, there is considerable overlap between the two groups).
One of the House amendments, introduced by Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), bars the DEA and Justice Department from using taxpayer money to "confiscate, seize, or otherwise impede the importation, transfer, or movement, in interstate or intrastate commerce, of seeds intended for the purpose of growing or cultivating industrial hemp…for research purposes in accordance with State law and pursuant to section 7606 of the Agricultural Act of 2014." The other House amendment, introduced by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), is broader, prohibiting the feds from trying to "prevent a State from implementing its own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of industrial hemp." The Senate amendment, inroduced by McConnell and Jeff Merkly (D-Ore.), says "none of the funds made available by this Act may be used in contravention of section 7606 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 by the Department of Justice or the Drug Enforcement Administration."
This is not the first time the DEA has been rebuked for flouting the law in its eagerness to disrupt the hemp industry. More than a decade ago the agency tried to ban edible hemp products such as the granola bar that Massie recently ate on The Independents (top right). That bizarre crusade was ultimately blocked by a federal appeals court, which said it had no statutory basis, since the Controlled Substances Act specifically excludes hemp seeds from its definition of marijuana. Evidently the DEA learned nothing from that experience. That Congress, having passed a law authorizing experimental hemp cultivation, must now pass another law telling the DEA to stop interfering with the first one speaks volumes about the agency's lawlessness as well as its commitment to a cultural crusade that even an old fuddy-duddy like Mitch McConnell can't get behind.