The Government May Have Just Legalized Hemp

Why Congress’ 2018 Farm Bill is poised to be a game-changer — and from an unlikely source.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is human garbage.

His reign of terror has lasted decades, but someday his tenure will blessedly end. When it does, we will look back at his time in office as a master class in undermining the will of the American public, full of obstructionism, a casual erosion of norms that led to entrenched governmental dysfunction, and the stealing of a Supreme Court seat. While nothing will change how history remembers McConnell’s legacy, Kentucky’s most disappointing son is currently poised to do a small bit of good in balance to his ceaseless tidal wave of evil.

Having just passed the House of Representatives, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (H.R. 2) includes a section that would amend the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970 to reclassify industrial hemp plants that are currently Schedule I controlled substances. To be clear, this bill would not alter the federal status of marijuana. Only plants containing 0.3-percent THC or less would qualify, but the potential for H.R. 2 (commonly known as the 2018 Farm Bill) to remake the landscape is still a huge deal.

For those trying valiantly to recall the distinction between hemp and “marihuana” — still the official terminology used by the DEA — the simple answer is that cannabis comes in two varieties.

While hemp is rich in the cannabinoid CBD, it has only a fraction of the THC found in cannabis plants cultivated for consumption. The 2014 Farm Bill — which was the last time Congress tackled agriculture in a comprehensive way — made it possible for some hemp and CBD to be produced domestically, but a large percentage of the CBD we now see in products ranging from dog biscuits to skincare lotions is imported.

It appears Mitch McConnell is ready to bring those dollars back home. Historically, Kentucky had been the nation’s leading producer of hemp, and with tobacco — another Bluegrass State cash crop — falling out of favor nationwide, farmers have clamored for a viable alternative. So from McConnell’s perspective, legalizing hemp may be constituent services rather than some genuinely principled stand on the injustices of the Drug War — but we’ll take it.

In a June speech on the Senate floor, McConnell noted that since 2016, U.S. retail sales of hemp products — a category that covers everything from CBD to fabrics, fuel, and paper — totaled “approximately $688 million.” Given that hemp’s inclusion in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 was partly the result of the Nixon administration’s efforts to disenfranchise minorities by banning cannabis altogether, the 2018 Farm Bill is a course correction 48 years in the making.

While the cannabis industry continues to wait for the day when cannabis in all its varied forms is formally legalized on a federal level, the possibility of a legalized domestic industrial hemp industry isn’t simply a consolation prize.

“This represents a significant and long overdue shift in U.S. policy,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said in a November press release. “Now it is time for lawmakers to craft simple benchmark safety and quality standards for hemp-derived CBD in order to increase consumer satisfaction and confidence as this nascent industry transitions into a legal marketplace.”

In addition to Strekal’s valid concerns about establishing standards when it comes to CBD, another controversial element to the legislation came in the form of a provision that would have barred felons from growing hemp.

According to McClatchy, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) was a key player in getting the felon ban reduced to a ten year waiting period. In the newest version of the bill, felons must wait a decade from the date of their conviction to start growing hemp.

In a letter submitted to members of both chambers of Congress, fellow Kentucky senator Rand Paul noted that no other agricultural commodities have any such restrictions in place. Further support from Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) likely helped turn the tide on ensuring that all interested parties would eventually have the opportunity to participate in the industrial hemp industry. To put that into dollars, a September report from the Brightfield Group research firm indicates that should H.R. 2 pass, hemp-derived CBD alone may generate $22 billion annually by 2022.

H.R. 2 is also notable for language that transfers the power of regulation away from the federal government and into the hands of individual states — a majority of which have already established permitting procedures. You can easily imagine the bill that ultimately legalizes cannabis working in a similar fashion, with Congress leaving it up to each state to decide how they want to handle things. Mitch McConnell may finally be able to say with a straight face that he’s actually done something that benefits the American people.

Zack Ruskin covers news, culture, and music for SF Weekly. |  @zackruskin

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