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Dispatch from Kentucky: The Opportunity for Federal Hemp Legislation

September 28, 2017

By Rona Kobell

      James Comer is the only farmer of the 60 freshmen elected to Congress last year. The former Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner oversees a district of people similar to him: conservative, mostly white cattle farmers. They voted overwhelmingly for Donald J. Trump, and still support him.

      And yet, Comer, the state’s hemp champion, often finds himself talking about economic benefits in places like Louisville and Lexington, where he has also developed a constituency of support since pushing for an industrial hemp law in 2014 that has made Kentucky one of the most productive hemp states.

      Hemp, a plant derived from cannabis that has none of the psychoactive properties of marijuana, has always brought together strange bedfellows: farmers in cowboy hats who grow the crop on former tobacco fields their families have owned for centuries; hipster food company CEOs who tout the benefits of hemp seeds and hemp oil as health foods; and slick men in suits who peddle the plant as a cure for epilepsy and other ailments in its cannabidiol oil form, or CBD oil.

      But in Kentucky, this odd coalition is actually an industry, lobbying together for new rules that will allow them to have the basic tools that other businesses, like wineries and distilleries, can get easily: crop insurance, bank loans, and economic development assistance. Because hemp is still federally listed as a Schedule I drug, hemp farmers are relegated to an all-cash business. They have that in common with their counterparts in the marijuana business, and both would like that to change.

      Comer learned the art of coalition building as a legislator in Frankfort, where a state that was once blue is now solidly red but where he says bipartisanship is alive and well.  Though Congress has increasingly hardened on each side of the divide, a new hemp bill reached across the aisle. In addition to Comer and his fellow Kentuckian Thomas Massie, also a Republican cattle farmer, the sponsors include Colorado Democrat Jared Polis and Bob Goodlatte, who chairs the judiciary committee.

      The main goal of the legislation is to take hemp off the drug schedule, and get the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Department of Justice off the farm. Hemp will still be a long way from being treated like backyard tomato plants or even commodity crops like corn and soybeans, but it would be eligible for crop protections. (For more on the history, see this article.)

      Hemp has essentially been illegal to grow in the United States since the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which made both parts of the cannabis plant illegal. The government granted a reprieve during World War II, when it needed hemp for ropes and sails for ships, but after that cheaper materials that could be mass-produced replaced it. Richard Nixon put both marijuana and hemp on the schedule of dangerous drugs, where they remain today.

      Comer said he’s optimistic about passage, but he worries the bill might become a victim of its own success. Most Congressmen now know the difference between marijuana and hemp, and most understand that prohibitions against a plant about as likely to produce a high as a cup of soybeans make no sense in attempting to diversify one’s economy. But Comer is worried now that the marijuana advocates will try to hitch their cause to his, hoping that passage of the bill will also allow marijuana growers to have bank accounts and crop insurance.

      Comer, who has spent time with President Donald Trump and has been lobbying Agricultural Secretary Sonny Perdue as well as justice department officials, told about 300 attendees at the Hemp Industries Association conference in Lexington, that he doesn’t want that to happen. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made it clear he considers marijuana a dangerous drug. Sessions has made no public comment on industrial hemp, and his office declined to answer questions about his feelings.

            “At the end of the day, we’ve got to make this an industrial hemp bill, because I have a pretty good idea of what the Trump Administration can tolerate, and what they can’t, and what Attorney General Sessions can tolerate, and what he can’t,” Comer told the 300 or so crowd at the Hemp Industries Association conference in Lexington earlier this month. “I’m very excited that there’s much interest in trying to tack amendments on the bill, because people wouldn’t be wasting their time if the bill was on a path to nowhere. But we need to make sure those amendments don’t derail the bill.”

            If hemp will help cities, which ones will be next for the boost? Hemp has already brought more than 100 jobs to Louisville and Lexington, where companies process and ship the hemp products grown on farms. Consensus seemed to be building around Nashville, as Tennessee recently legalized industrial hemp and started a pilot program to grow it, and Asheville, N.C., because of its new law and its proximity to the garment industry.

            But as I pointed out in a recent Abell report, Hope For Hemp, and again in an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, Baltimore would be well-situated to benefit in big ways if only we would follow the lead of Kentucky and several other states and legalize hemp here. We have the medical research institutions to investigate CBD, we have the Maryland Institute College of Art and Under Armour to perfect and monetize the fiber side, and we have affordable warehouse space to welcome food, soap and other artisanal companies. But to make it work, a large university – likely the University of Maryland – would have to supervise a pilot research growing program, just as the University of Kentucky has done. And the Maryland Department of Agriculture would have to staff and oversee it, just as Kentucky’s has.

            As of now, neither has jumped up to say they were ready to undertake such an initiative, despite a growing push in Annapolis by legislators from both parties to do so, as well as interest from farmers and a proven track record – albeit close to a century old – that our soil is among the best nationwide for this crop. The main delegate involved in the effort, Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo, has vowed to try again.

            The longer Maryland waits, though, the more likely the next big hemp thing will find its home in Nashville or Asheville, Lexington or Louisville. Kentucky is offering a low cost of living, the promise of support and a community of like-minded evangelists. Hope for hemp may spring eternal, but patience surely is not.

Rona Kobell will be on Midday Thursday Sept. 28 talking about her hemp work for the Abell Foundation. She has also written about hemp for Reason, Citylab and the Baltimore Sun.