Pubdate: Wed, 18 Apr 2018
Source: Lexington Herald-Leader (KY)
Copyright: 2018 Lexington Herald-Leader
Author: Lesley Clark


WASHINGTON - Embracing the hemp industry was a savvy political move for 
Kentucky Rep. James Comer, the only Republican to win statewide in 2011 
during an otherwise tough year for his party.

The political message got through. Now taking up the charge to make it
easier -- and completely legal -- for U.S. farmers to grow and market
hemp products, including trendy cannabidiol or CBD oil: Senate
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

McConnell, R-Ky., who pledges to give the legalization effort
"everything we've got," is expediting the legislation and lining up
key support from across the aisle as backers seek to convince
otherwise tough-on-drugs Republicans to come along.

"This has become one of his priorities," Comer, the former Kentucky
Agriculture Commissioner turned congressman said of McConnell.

McConnell's support could help sway the "handful of members who still
cringe when I come up to talk to them about hemp," Comer said.

McConnell took the conservative approach this week on the Senate
floor, arguing that Kentucky farmers reeling from the slump in the
tobacco market, have wanted to grow industrial hemp, but that the
federal government has "stood in the way."

He noted that his legislation, which would remove hemp from the list
of controlled substances, would ensure that hemp is distinguished from
what he called its "illicit cousin."

McConnell also provided a bit of an entrepreneurial pitch, noting that
hemp fiber is being used in home insulation and that "some breweries
in Kentucky have even crafted hemp-infused beer."

To speed things along, McConnell invoked the Senate's "Rule 14" for
his legislation, allowing it to be brought directly to the Senate
floor, without traditional committee consideration. A spokesman for
McConnell said the leader invokes the rule several times a week and
has previously used it for his own legislation.

McConnell last June used the same maneuver to expedite the Republican
health care bill, sparking complaints from senators that the testimony
on legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act was never heard in a
committee. The bill eventually failed.

Rule 14 does not preclude committees from reviewing the legislation,
said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart. But the bill, which would remove
hemp from the list of controlled substances, would have presumably
been heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chairman Sen.
Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has opposed earlier efforts, citing concerns
about legalization of marijuana.

Grassley said Wednesday he was unfamiliar with McConnell's effort.

Backers say McConnell, who has long served on the Senate's Agriculture
Committee and has several times won the Kentucky Farm Bureau's "Golden
Plow" award, has been impressed with the state's hemp initiatives,
which he helped launch in 2014.

He's also cognizant of hemp's history in Kentucky. It was once a
leading cash crop and the federal government during World War II had
Kentucky grow hemp for the war effort, though it was forbidden elsewhere.

Critics worry about hemp's relationship to marijuana. They're
concerned that legalizing hemp, even on a limited basis, could give
more momentum to pro-marijuana supporters, who want to scrap the
federal ban against pot. Both are classified as controlled substances,
banned by Congress for decades.

Hemp is the non-intoxicating sister plant of marijuana. Both come from
the same species, Cannabis sativa, but hemp has only a trace of THC,
the chemical that produces a high. Hemp has a myriad of uses, its
supporters say, from clothing to construction materials. Auto
manufacturers in Kentucky are eager to copy their German counterparts
and use hemp fiber in car dashboards and door panels.

"McConnell coming out is a game changer," Comer said. "Not only is he
the most powerful person in Congress, he's very cautious. So knowing
that he supports it, you do a little research and you find out it's
been a real success story in Kentucky and that makes you confident."

Supporters say the issue hits a sweet spot between Democrats who
support relaxed marijuana laws and conservatives who see hemp's
inclusion on the federal list of controlled substances as government
interference. It is legal to grow in other countries, including
Canada, and many hemp products in the U.S. contain hemp grown elsewhere.

States are increasingly looking to get involved: Oklahoma this week
became the latest state to allow farmers to grow hemp, with lawmakers
touting it as a boost to the economy. The move comes as products made
with CBD oil, a compound from the cannabis plant, are showing up in
posh department stores and beauty magazines.

McConnell has not always been as supportive. Eric Steenstra, president
and co-founder of Vote Hemp, a nonprofit advocacy group that backs
hemp farming, said Comer's election in 2011 caught the leader's interest.

Comer, a former farmer, campaigned on legalizing the crop and won by
double digits even as the top of the Republican ticket, gubernatorial
candidate David Williams lost to incumbent Democrat Steve Beshear by
20 points. Once in office, Comer oversaw legislation to legalize some
industrial hemp in the state.

"McConnell took note of that," Steenstra said. His fellow Kentucky
senator, Rand Paul, R-Ky., had long supported the effort. His father,
former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, sponsored one of the first hemp
legalization bills.

McConnell "came to see there was something to it, something that was
good for Kentucky farmers," Steenstra said.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a hardline against marijuana
legalization, and McConnell has said that he plans to talk with the
administration about the bill. His office did not comment on the
senator's strategy for this story.

In 2014, McConnell successfully tucked a provision into the farm bill
that allowed state departments of agriculture, as well as colleges and
universities, to grow hemp for academic, research and marketing
purposes in states that voted to make cultivation legal.

Backers say the that the plant's continuing presence on the list of
controlled substances creates confusion and restricts farmers and
processors' access to banking and crop insurance. Comer in 2014 took
the Drug Enforcement Administration to court after it seized 250
pounds of hemp seeds en route to the University of Kentucky from
Italy. Among those helping to settle the case: McConnell, who met with
the DEA administrator to make Kentucky's case.

"I again expressed my frustration that the DEA is using its finite
resources to stymie plainly lawful hemp pilot projects at the very
time Kentucky is facing growing threats from heroin addiction and
other drug abuse," McConnell said at the time.

Under McConnell's plan, states would submit plans to the U.S.
Department of Agriculture. States would regulate local production. The
plan would also make USDA research funding available to farmers, and
hemp would be eligible for crop insurance.

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, who appeared with
McConnell in Frankfort to announce the majority leader's support,
noted McConnell once sat at Kentucky legend Henry Clay's desk in the
Senate -- and that Clay was one of the largest hemp growers in the
U.S. when he served in the Senate.

"There's a misperception of what the crop is and what it is not,"
Quarles said. "I imagine Sen. McConnell will greatly help our
education efforts."
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