by: Colton Adams
In a joint press conference earlier this year, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) and Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles (R) announced their support for upcoming legislation in the United States Senate to legalize industrial hemp.[i] In the U.S. House, Rep. James Comer (R-KY) introduced a companion bill, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act[ii], which will legalize hemp by removing it from the federal list of controlled substances, and designate it as an agricultural commodity.[iii] By removing hemp from federal control lists and removing substantial federal barriers, this Act will also allow states to control the hemp regulations within their states.[iv]
This effort, however, is not without its hurdles. As Sen. McConnell has recognized, past efforts to legalize industrial hemp both nationwide and in the states have often fallen flat.[v] This is largely due to the perceived similarities between industrial hemp and other forms of cannabis. However, because industrial hemp has minuscule levels of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which causes the “high” traditionally associated with smokable forms of marijuana, it is actually very different.[vi]
In addition to the confusion caused by hemp’s relationship to marijuana, the Senate Majority Leader and Kentucky state officials may also face opposition from top drug enforcement officials at the federal levels.[vii] One such opponent is U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions—who recently rescinded an Obama-era memo that allowed states to implement their own marijuana laws without federal interference, and repeatedly spoke against various forms of hemp legalization while serving in the U.S. Senate alongside Sen. McConnell.[viii]
Despite these roadblocks to legalization, Sen. McConnell has continued to express his optimism. “We all are so optimistic that industrial hemp can become sometime in the future what tobacco was in Kentucky’s past,” McConnell has exclaimed.[ix] Some farmers, like eight-generation tobacco farmer Brian Furnish, agree with Sen. McConnell. “It is my opinion that in my lifetime hemp will be bigger than tobacco in Kentucky,” Furnish said.[x] “We are right for it because we have the tobacco infrastructure that no one else has in the world.”[xi]
In fact, recent economic impacts seem to suggest that McConnell’s optimism in the future of hemp in Kentucky may be well placed. Touting evidence from Kentucky’s industrial hemp research pilot program, Ag. Commissioner Quarles echoed McConnell’s optimism, “Just last year alone, 81 jobs were created, over $25 million capital investments were made in Kentucky, and over $16 million worth of industrial hemp products were grown by Kentucky farmers and sold throughout the United States.”[xii]
Based on this and other positive results from Kentucky’s pilot program, Quarles is convinced that once legislation is passed, “it will open the floodgates toward investment and economic growth.”[xiii] With the full-legalization of industrial hemp receiving the Senate Majority Leaders’ and other top Kentucky officials’ emphatic support, the question no longer appears to be if it will occur, but rather, when it will. Until then, we will have to continue speculating whether industrial hemp will indeed become in the future what tobacco was in Kentucky’s past.
[i] Press Release, Senator Mitch McConnell (March 26, 2018), https://www.mcconnell.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/pressreleases?ID=92CD9FA7-C278-4332-B187-745C15F35EFC.
[ii] Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2017, H.R. 3530, 115th Cong. (2017).
[iv]McConnell announces hemp legislation with Ky. Ag. Commissioner, WKYT (March 26, 2018, 5:04 PM), https://www.wkyt.com/content/news/Sen-McConnell-and-Ky-Ag-Commissioner-announce-hemp-legislation-477932893.html.
[v] See Mitch McConnell, McConnell: Bipartisan Bill Allows Kentucky Hemp to Flourish, Lexington Herald-Leader: Opinion (April 23, 2018, 4:57 PM), http://www.kentucky.com/opinion/op-ed/article209654014.html.
[vii] Tom Angell, Sen. Mitch McConnell Pushes Bill to Legalize Hemp, Forbes (Mar. 26, 2018, 11:36 AM), https://www.forbes.com/sites/tomangell/2018/03/26/sen-mitch-mcconnell-pushes-bill-to-legalize-hemp/#6bca0b36581a.
[viii] Tom Angell, Sessions Rescinds Memo on State Marijuana Laws, Marijuana Moment (Jan. 4, 2018), https://www.marijuanamoment.net/sessions-rescind-memo-state-marijuana-laws/.
[ix] Angell, supra note vii.
[x] WKYT, supra note iv.
[xii] Dalton Godbey, Kentucky Lawmakers Show Support for Legalization of Hemp Farming, WBKO (April 4, 2018, 10:57 PM), http://www.wbko.com/content/news/Kentucky-lawmakers-show-support-for-legalization-of-hemp-farming-478818783.html.