Pubdate: Fri, 06 Jun 2014
Source: Virgin Islands Daily News, The (VI)
Copyright: 2014 Virgin Islands Daily News
Author: Rob Hotakainen, McClatchy
Page: 22
Bookmark: (Hemp)


WASHINGTON - By any measure, the U.S. hemp industry is playing a hot 
hand these days.

Retail sales of hemp products jumped by a whopping 24 percent last 
year, with Americans gobbling up a record amount of food, lotions, 
soaps, clothing, paper products and even auto parts made from hemp fiber.

While growing hemp remains illegal as a drug banned by the federal 
government, experimental plots have been planted in Kentucky and 
Colorado since Congress approved them for research purposes earlier this year.

And a bipartisan coalition is growing, with Republican Sen. Rand Paul 
of Kentucky boasting last year that he owns a hemp shirt and 
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack suggesting in March that Ukraine 
might ultimately provide the United States with a good supply of 
industrial hemp seeds.

On Thursday, the hemp industry showed its new muscle on Capitol Hill, 
convincing the Senate Appropriations Committee to approve a plan that 
would block federal agencies from spending any money to enforce 
anti-hemp laws in states that have received permission to grow the 
plant. The vote, on an amendment to a larger spending bill, was 22-8.

The proposal emerged after the Drug Enforcement Administration last 
month seized a shipment of Italian hemp seeds destined for Kentucky.

Eventually, the state got its seeds back, but only after filing a 
lawsuit against the federal government.

"DEA is a bit of a lost rogue agency. They just don't get it," said 
Eric Steenstra, the executive director of the Hemp Industries 
Association, a trade group that represents hundreds of hemp 
businesses. "They've been continuing to sort of have a hard time 
accepting the new reality."

Craig Lee, a board member of the Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative 
Association in Lexington, said hemp provided a big opportunity for 
his state, especially with the troubles facing the tobacco industry. 
But he said it made little sense to have federal drug enforcement 
agents thwart efforts to revive the crop, which thrived in the state 
decades ago.

"We need to stop the DEA," Lee said. "That organization needs to be 
taken down at the knees and disbanded. Get totally rid of it and 
throw it in the grave with Richard Nixon."

The vote could go a long way in determining the power of states to 
implement their hemp plans, since the full House of Representatives 
already passed a similar plan last week, approving two similar 
amendments offered by Kentucky Republican Rep. Thomas Massie and 
Oregon Democratic Rep. Suzanne Bonamici. The issue now will go to the 
full Senate for a final vote, which is expected later this month.

Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top-ranking Republican on the 
Appropriations Committee, argued that it's a mistake for Congress to 
tie the hands of the DEA.

"Prohibiting the Drug Enforcement Administration from enforcing... 
our drug laws sets, I believe, a dangerous precedent," he said.

California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who also voted against 
the plan, said Congress already allowed the importation of hemp seed 
as long as states registered with the DEA.

"This is not a burdensome process," she said.

But Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, who's also a farmer, backed 
the amendment, saying hemp could provide big marketing opportunities 
and serve as a lucrative alternative crop.

"This isn't the stuff you smoke," he said. "If you smoke this stuff, 
you've got to smoke like 80 pounds to get a buzz, OK?"

Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who heads 
the-Appropriations Committee, jokingly thanked Tester for his 
"expertise" before voting for the amendment herself.

Hemp is the nonintoxicating sister plant of marijuana, which Congress 
banned as a controlled substance in 1970. Both come from the same 
species, Cannabis sativa, but hemp has only a trace of THC, the 
chemical that produces a high.

Under federal law, it's legal to buy and sell hemp products but 
illegal to grow or cultivate the plant. Hemp backers complain that 
they're forced to rely on imported hemp oil to keep their industry 
going. They say Congress should make it easier for states to 
capitalize on the business.

The industry has one particularly powerful ally on Capitol Hill: 
Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader. He 
teamed up with Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley to offer the 
amendment when Senate appropriators set 2015 spending levels for the 
Justice Department, which oversees the DEA.

McConnell released a statement after the vote that said the amendment 
would help prevent the DEA or other federal agencies from blocking 
pilot programs.

"These legal pilot programs authorized by my legislation could help 
boost our state's economy and lead to future jobs," he said.

Kentucky and Colorado are among 15 states - the others are 
California, Hawaii, Indiana, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, 
Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia - 
allowed to grow hemp for academic and research purposes by meeting 
conditions set out in the latest farm bill, which Congress passed in 
January, according to Vote Hemp, a group that's lobbying to legalize 
hemp. Pro-hemp bills have been introduced in 33 states in recent 
years, including 25 this year, the group said.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom