Congress May Finally Be Ready to Legalize Hemp

A homegrown hemp renaissance could be just around the corner.



Earlier this week, leaders in Congress announced steps to legalize hemp. A bipartisan bill, the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, is set to be introduced next week by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). McConnell says the bill "will finally legalize…hemp as an agricultural commodity and remove it from [the] list of controlled substances."

Hemp is the non-psychoactive cousin of marijuana. Hemp can't get you high and, unlike tomatoes, has no documented history of turning miraculously into marijuana. But the federal government has long designated hemp as a banned crop.

"Currently regulations consider hemp to be a drug," I wrote in 2013. "The DEA bars farmers from growing hemp without a permit. Not surprisingly, the DEA doesn't issue such permits."

The seeds of the imminent legislative push were planted four years ago, when Congress passed an amendment to the Farm Bill that allows some hemp to be grown for research purposes. The federal government's Drug Enforcement Administration immediately violated the law by seizing a shipment of hemp seeds destined for Kentucky. The state sued the DEA, which was forced to back down.

So what's the problem today?

For one, the DEA continues to drag its heels on complying with other facets of the law. Another is that the 2014 Farm Bill provision I noted at the time is so narrow that only under our idiotic drug war could it be viewed as a step forward. The Farm Bill language granted monopoly growing power to state universities and agriculture departments. No individuals could grow hemp legally. By way of comparison, imagine if Congress passed a law that continued to ban American farmers from growing tomatoes but carved out an exception that allowed state government units to grow tomatoes. That's roughly where we're at with hemp farming in this country today.

Despite the inane domestic prohibitions, hemp products are ubiquitous worldwide. Foods containing hemp are also common. That's increasingly the case here in the United States. In 2013, for example, I reported that Amazon sold nearly 250 different hemp food products. Today, that number stands at nearly 800—an increase of more than 200% in just five years. But little of the hemp foods sold in this country comes from hemp grown in this country. Most of the hemp used in foods and other products sold in the U.S. comes from Canada, China, and Europe.

Growing consumer demand for hemp products mirrors growing acceptance in the states for hemp farming.

In 2013, only nine states had adopted laws regulating hemp production. Several months ago, the National Conference of State Legislatures reported that 34 states had passed legislation regulating hemp farming. Despite the federal ban, that number is growing. Earlier this month, Missouri's state senate voted to regulate hemp farming.

States where growing marijuana is legal (though still illegal under federal law) are leading domestic sources of hemp. As of 2106, there were around 400 industrial hemp operations in Colorado. Hemp acreage in Colorado grew from just over 2,000 in 2015 to 9,000 last year.

Besides ending an entirely pointless federal ban and helping to meet consumer demand, legalizing hemp would help ease the way for hemp farmers to do some of the things farmers need the opportunity to do if they want to succeed, including buying crop insurance or opening bank accounts, both of which the current federal ban can make difficult or impossible.

The Hemp Farming Act of 2018 will be co-sponsored by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

"I fully support the cultivation of industrial hemp," Sen. Paul told me by email this week. "Allowing farmers throughout our nation to cultivate industrial hemp and benefit from its many uses will boost Kentucky's economy and bring much-needed jobs to the agriculture industry."

In a 2016 column on food policy and the presidential election, I listed hemp deregulation as one of the most important issues.

"Deregulate the cultivation of hemp so that growing hemp is regulated the same as growing other non-psychoactive foods like tomatoes, carrots, and kale," I wrote. That possibility seems far more plausible—and inevitable—than it has at any point in my lifetime.