The United States is one step closer to full federal hemp cultivation. On Aug. 1, 2018, the U.S. Senate voted by voice to move the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, also known as the 2018 Farm Bill, to conference. Included in the bill is an amendment that will fully legalize the cultivation of hemp, on the condition that states submit a regulatory plan for hemp production to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture for approval.
The amendment is the brainchild of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who over the last several years has increasingly become an ardent supporter of legalizing hemp production. In 2014, Senator McConnell helped to get key language inserted into the 2014 Farm Bill (Section 7606) which empowered institutions of higher education and state departments of agriculture to cultivate hemp for research purposes under limited, sanctioned “pilot projects.”
Earlier this year, McConnell tried to expand hemp’s federal legal standing in a stand-alone bill, but ultimately inserted the language into the 2018 Farm Bill. Now that the Farm Bill has been moved to conference, negotiations over details of the bill are set to begin. In an unusual move, McConnell has named himself to the conference committee, which means he will sit in on the bill negotiations.
“I will advocate for Kentucky’s multi-billion-dollar agriculture industry that supports thousands of good jobs and families in nearly every corner of the Commonwealth,” McConnell said in a statement on Thursday. “Additionally, I will strongly advocate to legalize industrial hemp. I’m optimistic that my Hemp Farming Act, which I secured in the Senate bill, will be included in the final bill sent to the President for his signature. I am also glad to have the support of Congressman Comer on the Conference for legalizing industrial hemp.”
In an agricultural state like Kentucky, legalized hemp production could bring hundreds or even thousands of jobs to the state. McConnell has invested a considerable amount of political capital and credibility into this prospect, so it is not surprising that the Senate Majority Leader would want to oversee the negotiations personally. Standing in the way of the bill’s passage, however, is a number of controversial provisions and amendments that have rankled hemp advocates and partisans alike.
For hemp advocates, the main sticking point is a provision which would ban felons with drug convictions from the hemp industry for life. The rule was included in the amendment as a concession to certain lawmakers and the Justice Department, which feared that individuals would somehow produce THC oil from hemp.
Because hemp – by legal definition – contains only 0.03 percent THC, many opponents of the measure say that it is unnecessary, discriminatory and morally unfair in nature. Critics point to the unintentional racial effect of such a ban. Given that the War on Drugs has disproportionately affected African Americans and communities of color, banning those with felony drug convictions may disproportionately shut-out these groups from the hemp industry. Industry leaders and activists, like Morris Beegle and Rick Trojan, point to the fact those convicted of a felony have already paid their debt to society, and this amendment is, quite simply, “terrible.”
Despite the controversy, some hemp organizations still support the McConnell amendment as-is, although others have withdrawn their support, like the National Hemp Association (NHA).
Initially, the NHA supported the language of the amendment. Speaking to Hemp Industry Daily, NHA’s new executive director, Geoff Whaling, called the bill an ‘imperfect compromise.’ But after days of public outcry, the NHA retracted its position and telling supporters online that “we need to do everything we can to remove the misguided amendment that prevents anyone with a felony drug offense from obtaining a license to grow hemp.”
Other prickly provisions that may slow down the Farm Bill include work requirements for SNAP benefit recipients and differences between the House and Senate over farm subsidies. Some are also concerned that the House, whose version of the Farm Bill does not include legalizing hemp production, will balk at the McConnell amendment during reconciliation.
Nevertheless, Politico reports that McConnell remains confident and believes that the Farm Bill conference report will be ready after Labor Day, setting up lawmakers to vote on the bill in early September. If the Farm Bill passes committee, then it will go to President Trump’s desk for signing head of November’s mid-term elections.