After years of failed attempts, 2013 could be the year industrial hemp slips the bonds of federal restrictions and becomes a legitimate crop for America’s farmers.
Bills were introduced in the U.S. Senate during 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2011 — but never made it out of committee. But supporters have high hopes for this year. Bills have been introduced in both the House and Senate that would make it legal to grow industrial hemp without a permit from the Drug Enforcement Agency.
“This year is different,” said Eric Steenstra, executive director of Vote Hemp in Washington, D.C. “We’re hopeful we’ll see more action this year. There’s significant support.”
That support includes 28 co-sponsors for both bills, he said, including such well-known figures as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
“We’ve never gotten top support like that before,” Steenstra said.
For his part, McConnell says it’s about economics. His home state of Kentucky provided 94 percent of the nation’s industrial hemp during World War II, when farmers were encourage to “Grow Hemp for Victory.” But hemp was rolled in with marijuana and criminalized in the 1970s. Since then, the government has agreed to allow hemp farms, but only with a permit from the Drug Enforcement Agency, which has never occurred. Imports have grown 300 percent in the past decade, McConnell said in a press release announcing his decision to co-sponsor the bill.
“I am proud to introduce legislation with my friend Rand Paul that will allow Kentucky farmers to harness the economic potential that industrial hemp can provide,” McConnell said. “During these tough economic times, this legislation has the potential to create jobs and provide a boost to Kentucky’s economy and to our farmers and their families.”
However, given the current contentious relationships in Congress, passing the legislation will be an uphill battle, Steenstra said.
“I think only 2 percent of all the bills that are introduced actually get a shot at passage,” he said. “But we have eight Republicans and 21 Democrats on board, so that’s good bipartisan support.”
The difference this year? More momentum at the state level, Steenstra said. Kentucky, normally a conservative state, just started the legislative process to legalize hemp this session. Ten states already have approved the crop, and hemp legislation has been introduced in Hawaii, Indiana, New Hampshire and Vermont. Six other states could have legislation this year, according to the Hemp Industries Association, a nonprofit trade group in the U.S.
“And testifying for it in Kentucky — the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and three sitting members of Congress,” he said. “This is being looked at as a jobs and economic driver.”
The move to legalize industrial hemp is gaining traction thanks in part to a report from the Congressional Research Service that viewed hemp as a viable crop, putting the market for hemp products at $300 million annually. Hemp is related to marijuana, but without the levels of THC necessary to change brain chemistry. Hemp is used in food, clothing and personal-hygiene products.
In the past three years, other voices have joined the clamor to remove restrictions from growing hemp commercially. The National Farmers Union adopted a policy to urge the president, attorney general and Congress to differentiate between hemp and marijuana. The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture also supports revision of the federal rules to authorize commercial production of industrial hemp, and the National Grange voted to support research, production, processing and marketing of industrial hemp.
Regional farmers’ organizations have policies promoting hemp, with the North Dakota Farmers Union and the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union urging Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to “fully fund research into alternative crops,” including hemp.
In Colorado, the General Assembly will need to create legislation authorizing the cultivation, processing and sale of industrial hemp, as mandated by Amendment 64 to the Colorado Constitution that passed in November. The agriculture commissioner, former Congressman John Salazar, will be tasked with establishing regulatory requirements for registration and inspection of crops.
Final rules are expected by the end of the year, so Colorado farmers could start planting hemp as early as 2014. But production will depend on federal action in Congress, since few are willing to risk federal raids on crops.
Steenstra is optimistic.
“We’re at a real tipping point,” he said. “I never would have believed five years ago that we’d have the ranking Republican in the Senate co-sponsoring the bill. It could be this is the year.”
The Hemp Industries Association is hosting a symposium about industrial hemp farming at The Ranch in Loveland from 6 to 9:30 p.m. on March 21. Topics include growing and processing hemp, available markets for the crop, and the legal and political status of hemp at state and federal levels. Speakers include Shaun Crew, president of Hemp Oil Canada; Anndrea Hermann, agrologist and hemp farming expert; Eric Steenstra, executive director of Vote Hemp; and Summer Star Haeske, marketing director for EnviroTextiles, a Colorado-based hemp textile importer.