Kentucky farmers have long been at the forefront of hemp cultivation in America. With records of it being planted there dating back to 1775, it’s fitting that nearly 250 years later a senator from Kentucky would spearhead efforts to separate hemp—at least agriculturally—from its psychoactive cousin.
On March 26, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced that he plans to introduce the Hemp Farming Act of 2018. If passed by Congress, it would finally legalize hemp as an agricultural commodity and remove it from the Controlled Substances Act.
“Hemp has played a foundational role in Kentucky’s agricultural heritage,” McConnell explained at the state Department of Agriculture in Frankfort, where he was joined by Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles. “I believe it can be an important part of our future. We’re ready to take the next step and build upon the successes we’ve seen with Kentucky’s hemp pilot program.”
Hemp farming in Kentucky has experienced a resurgence since the passage of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (a.k.a. the Farm Bill), which defined industrial hemp as distinct from marijuana, and authorized colleges, universities and the Agriculture Department to grow it for research under pilot programs. The amount of hemp planted in the Bluegrass State has increased from 33 acres to more than 3,200 since the pilot program was launched in 2015. As of February, the Agriculture Department had 248 growers and 35 processors participating. Quarles believes hemp’s long-term prospects in Kentucky are promising, as the state has a network of tobacco processors that can turn raw hemp into products such as plastics, textiles and construction materials.
Rand Paul to Co-Sponsor Bill
“I fully support the cultivation of industrial hemp,” added Kentucky’s other senator, Rand Paul, a Republican who’s a cosponsor of the Hemp Farming Act. “Allowing farmers to cultivate industrial hemp and benefit from its many uses will boost Kentucky’s economy and bring much-needed jobs to the agriculture industry.”
Senators McConnell and Paul are looking to enhance Kentucky’s position as the state leading the way on hemp production and to remove the federal barriers that have stifled the industry. The law would also allow hemp researchers to apply for federal grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, something that’s been denied because of hemp’s illegality.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: “Hemp has played a foundational role in Kentucky’s agricultural heritage.”
In the mid-19th century, Kentucky produced 40,000 tons of hemp per year, with a value of $5 million. But production took a precipitous fall after the abolition of slavery, although Kentucky remained the nation’s leading hemp producer, according to the late University of Kentucky historian James F. Hopkins’ A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky. The enactment of the federal Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 put hemp in legal limbo, although it had a brief revival during World War II after the Japanese conquered the Philippines, the main source of rope fiber. It disappeared after the war when the federal government defined any form of the cannabis plant as “marijuana.”
Switching from Tobacco to Hemp
Should the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 pass, it would be a boon not only for the nation’s farmers, but also for the U.S. economy. Sales of American-made hemp products soared to $688 million in 2016—but most of the hemp used was imported from China and Europe. Hemp is poised to become a substitute for tobacco farming in Kentucky, where tobacco yields have declined by 36% decline since 2014, from 163 million pounds to to 104 million pounds.
Sen. McConnell’s support for hemp, however, doesn’t extend to other uses of the cannabis plant. He received a grade of F on NORML’s Congressional Scorecard, because of his opposition to legalizing marijuana and to the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, which protects businesses and patients from federal prosecution in states where medical marijuana is legal.
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