Hemp is in a Legal Thicket, But Bills in Congress May Clear Confusion

By Jessica Peralta

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s proposed farming bill introduced April 12, 2018, could be what definitively answers the question: Is hemp legal?

Since the current answer to that question is more of a noncommittal shrug, hemp industry supporters are more than a little excited about the Hemp Farming Act of 2018. In a nutshell, the bill, S. 2667, would give states and Native American tribes the legal authority to produce hemp in their respective domains. Kentucky Republican James Comer introduced the same bill, HR 5485, in the House of Representatives.

“As the tobacco industry has changed, some farmers in states like Kentucky have been searching for a new crop that can support their families and grow our agricultural economy,” McConnell said during a televised Senate session when introducing the bill. “And many believe they’ve found such a product – industrial hemp. “But the federal government has stood in the way.”

The bill specifically defines hemp to mean “the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of that plant, including the seeds thereof and all derivatives, extracts, cannabinoids, isomers, acids, salts, and salts of isomers, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.”

While defining hemp as an agricultural commodity, the bill would also remove it from Schedule I of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) list of controlled substances, where it currently sits alongside marijuana.

Hemp currently holds a rather confusing status in terms of legality. Though the Agricultural Act of 2014 legalized industrial hemp cultivation for research purposes by a state department of agriculture pilot program or higher education institution, other federal agencies such as  the DEA have continued considering hemp illegal. Many states have legalized hemp production and even commercial sales, according to an article in The Pew Charitable Trusts. But there are a lot of gray areas that hemp businesses are attempting to navigate – and not without risk.

The Hemp Industries Association sued the DEA over the matter in 2001, and more recently filed a motion “to hold the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in contempt of court for violating an unchallenged, long-standing order issued by the US Court of Appeals in San Francisco, prohibiting the agency from regulating hemp food products as Schedule I controlled substances,” according to a Hemp Industries Association news release.

Hemp didn’t always had the notorious image of today. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ran a campaign during World War II encouraging farmers to grow hemp as an alternative to the Manila hemp used in ship’s rigging during a shortage of that imported hemp, according to PBS News Hour.

Nautical rigging is just one of hemp’s long list of possible commercial uses, which include fabric for clothes and other items, in beauty products and in food for humans and pets.

“By legalizing hemp and empowering states to conduct their own oversight plans, we can give the hemp industry the tools necessary to create jobs and new opportunities for farmers and manufacturers around the [country],” McConnell said in a press release.

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