By JAMIE SEARS RAWLINGS
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Growers and industry officials believe they are close to their goal of full commercial legalization of industrial hemp, thanks to legislation introduced April 12 by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
On the Senate floor when introducing the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 (S. 2667), he addressed President Trump directly, calling for a fundamental change in the way hemp production is regulated.
“Last year alone the hemp industry added 81 new jobs in Kentucky and yielded more than $16 million for Kentucky farmers, and that, Mr. President, is just under Kentucky’s research pilot program,” he said. “And, of course, that’s just one state.
“Already, in fact, around $600 million in hemp products are sold each year here in the U.S., but due to current laws, much of this hemp has to be imported. That cuts out our American famers. It’s time for that to change. The legislation we are introducing today will solve this problem and get the federal government out of the way of this promising market.”
Cosponsors Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) were similar in their pleas on behalf of the industrial hemp industry. “If we’re selling hemp products in the United States, we should be growing hemp in the United States – it’s good for jobs, good for our communities and it’s just common sense,” Merkley said, calling the current system “outdated” and “frustrating.”
Erica McBride, executive director of the National Hemp Assoc. (NHA), is hopeful S. 2667 has enough bipartisan support to finally unlock industrial hemp’s full potential as a commodity crop.
“Obviously we’ve all been wanting to see industrial hemp legitimized and treated like a commodity crop for a long time now, and to have somebody as influential as Senator McConnell introduce it gives us a lot of hope that this will be the time that we can actually get it across the finish line,” she said. “Hopefully, it’s just the right time and the right place to finally get it done.”
McBride believes the legislation, if passed, will “level the playing field” for the burgeoning industry, which has acted under language in the 2014 farm bill that allowed only for individual states to initiate research pilot programs independent from one another.
“It’s been extraordinarily difficult for an industry to be built with each and every state operating under a different set of rules and guidelines from another,” she noted.
This Act would knock down several barriers for the crop, primarily by removing it from the definition of marijuana present in Schedule I of the Federal Controlled Substances Act. “There are several key components to (S. 2667) that are going to be immensely helpful,” said McBride.
“First and foremost, by awarding jurisdiction of industrial hemp to the USDA, it gets the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) out of the middle. The DEA with their Joint Statement of Principles is what really hindered the industry, particularly as it comes down to being able to transport raw materials across state lines.
“A lot of states have interpreted that guidance as requiring them to import seeds from other countries as opposed to allowing states to import genetics from other states. If we want to build an American industry, it only makes sense that genetics that are currently here in the states can be built upon, as opposed to continuously bringing them in from other countries.”
McBride also said the clear legality of industrial hemp implied in S. 2667 should act to alleviate some financing barriers growers face, such as the inability to borrow funds from some lenders and the lack of crop insurance available for growers of industrial hemp.
Companion House legislation in H.R. 5485 was also introduced on April 12 by former Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture and current Rep. James Comer. “I led the efforts to make Kentucky the first state to legalize hemp, and then spent a large amount of time implementing the regulatory aspects,” the Republican said.
“Fast-forward to today, Kentucky is the leading industrial hemp-producing state in the nation, and the growth potential for hemp is unlimited.”
In Kentucky, where the industrial hemp pilot program has seen massive growth from 33 acres in 2014 to 3,200 in 2017, leaders are applauding McConnell’s actions. “This is an incredible milestone for the Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program we’ve built here in Kentucky,” said Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles.
State Rep. DJ Johnson (R-Owensboro), who sponsored legislation in the state’s General Assembly urging Congress to pave a path to commercialization for industrial hemp, echoed gratitude for McConnell’s bipartisan legislation.
“Kentucky farmers have recognized the potential markets for hemp, and have taken the lead nationally in developing this new potential crop,” he said. “With implementation of this legislation, Kentucky hemp farmers will be able to take full advantage of new research and development opportunities.”
Kentucky and Colorado lead the nation in industrial hemp production, though McBride said it is difficult with the current system to accurately track production numbers – a feat she hopes will be more streamlined if full commercial production is granted.
According to the NHA, 28 states have laws allowing for hemp research programs and she estimated more than 25,000 acres of hemp were grown in the U.S. in 2017, which she considers a great foundation on which to build the industry if the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 is passed.