Mitch McConnell
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

These days there’s not much that Republicans and Democrats agree on. So it might surprise you that there is a provision in the Farm Bill originally sponsored by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and co-sponsored by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Additional co-sponsors include Senators Joni Ernst (R-IA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Richard Burr (R-NC).

Originally titled the “Hemp Farming Act,” it would remove the form of cannabis known as hemp from the list of Schedule 1 federally-controlled substances and legalize its production under state or tribal regulation. McConnell initially introduced the bill as a stand-alone, but it was later incorporated into the Senate’s Farm Bill, which will begin the reconciliation process with the House bill today for possible passage by the end of the month. Last April, the Majority Leader wrote an op-ed on the topic of how the production of hemp will benefit farmers.

For far too long, the federal government has prevented most farmers from growing hemp. Although it was a foundational part of Kentucky’s heritage and today you can buy products made with hemp at stores across the country, most farmers have been barred from planting it in their fields.

I have heard from many Kentucky farmers who agree it’s time to remove the federal hurdles in place and give our state the opportunity to seize its full potential and once again become the national leader for hemp production.

That’s why I was proud to introduce legislation in the Senate to finally and fully legalize industrial hemp.

While some of you might know a little bit about the history of hemp in this country, I’ll simply point out that the first U.S. flag created by Betsy Ross was made from its fibers. But the production of hemp was halted by the 1970 Controlled Substances Act because of its genetic linkage to marijuana.

People all over the globe are beginning to develop different strains of cannabis and do research on its potential uses and benefits. But the plants generally fall into three categories. There is marijuana, which is high in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component. While primarily used recreationally, it has been approved in some states for medicinal purposes. Traditionally hemp has been used to describe the variety that has a history of use as a fiber in everything from clothes and ropes to flags. It tends to have low levels of THC, but is higher in cannabidiol (CBD), which doesn’t have any intoxicating effects.

You might know something about the third strain if you’ve heard about the Stanley brothers in Colorado and their discovery that the plant they call Charlotte’s Web has a profound impact on children suffering from seizure disorders. When marijuana was legalized in Colorado, the Stanley brothers began experimenting with a cross between the two strains described above and produced a cannabis plant that resembled marijuana, but contained only trace amounts of THC, with higher concentrations of CBD. A little over a month ago, the FDA approved Epidiolex (CBD) for the treatment of seizures associated with two rare and severe forms of epilepsy.

Included in the 2014 Farm bill was a pilot program that allowed universities and state departments of agriculture to grow and research hemp, including strains like the one developed by the Stanley bothers. There are now 39 states that are participating, giving rise to the growing chorus that is advocating for its legalization.

McConnell’s bill would legalize the production of plants that contain less that 0.3 percent TCH, which includes those that have been part of the pilot program. Since the media attention given to Charlotte’s Web, there has been a lot of interest in CBD products as a treatment for several ailments, most notably joint pain and arthritis.

As Olivia Paschal reports, there is one glaring problem with the legislation as it stands today.

The farm bill’s language precludes people with drug-felony convictions from cultivating hemp, which means that many people with experience growing cannabis in the form of marijuana would be federally prohibited from growing its sister plant. Despite the relative success of the campaign to distinguish hemp from pot, it hasn’t been able to shake this relic of hemp’s history; Politico reported that the provision was added in early July to appease Grassley.

Though at least one advocacy group has condemned the ban on people with drug-felony convictions, backers have largely brushed aside criticism. Yet because drug-felony convictions disproportionately impact communities of color, the provision could serve to keep black, Latino, and Native American farmers out of the hemp market—much as similar laws at the state level have served to exclude them from the medical-marijuana industry.

This is a classic example of disparate impact. It doesn’t sound like Grassley inserted that provision specifically to exclude people of color—although that will clearly be the result. According to Politico, he was simply piqued that the legislation went to the Senate’s Ag Committee rather than his own Judiciary Committee and decided to extract a pound of flesh from McConnell for that.

As I mentioned above, the House and Senate begin negotiations today to reconcile their two versions of the Farm Bill. Some hardliners refused to allow their version of the Hemp Farming Act to be included in the House bill and most of the negotiations will focus on whether or not to include work requirements for food stamps. But McConnell has a plan for keeping hemp front and center.

He appointed himself to the farm bill conference committee, so anyone opposed to hemp gets to be against it to his face. “As Majority Leader, I put myself on the Conference, and we’re ready to get to work to ensure the future of American agriculture,” McConnell said in an August 2 news release. “I will advocate for Kentucky’s multi-billion-dollar agriculture industry. … Additionally, I will strongly advocate to legalize industrial hemp.”

You are not going to find many occasions in which Mitch McConnell does something productive that a lot of Democrats actually support. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be watching that extremely rare circumstance take shape as he and others work to make the production of hemp legal in this country once again.

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