By Phillip Smith
It's not just medical and legal marijuana states that watched the Justice Department's announcement of its response to marijuana law reforms in the states with interest. Nine states have laws regulating the production of industrial hemp, and ten more have asked Congress to remove barriers to industrial hemp production.
Hemp is also moving in the Congress. An amendment to the Farm Bill cosponsored by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Thomas Massie (R-KY), and Jared Polis (D-CO) passed the House on a vote of 225-200 in July and will now go to a joint House-Senate conference committee. And the Industrial Hemp Farming Act (House Resolution 525 and Senate Bill 359) is pending in both chambers.
At a Tuesday Capitol Hill briefing organized by the industry groupVote Hemp (video embedded below), state and federal elected officials said they thought the Justice Department's policy directive on marijuana opened the door not just to regulated medical and legal marijuana, but also to industrial hemp production. Some states intend to move forward, they said.
"That Department of Justice ruling pertained to cannabis," said Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner John Comer, "and hemp has always been banned because it's in the cannabis family. The Department of Justice ruling pertained to states with a regulatory framework for cannabis, and we feel that includes hemp as well. Our legislation set up a regulatory framework."
The legislation Comer is referring to is Kentucky Senate Bill 50, the Bluegrass State's industrial hemp bill, which passed the legislature with bipartisan support, gained endorsements by both of the state's Republican US senators, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, and became law without the governor's signature in April. It establishes an Industrial Hemp Commission and sets up procedures for licensing farming and processing.
"We have a hemp commission meeting Thursday, and we are going to request that Rand Paul send a letter to the DEA telling them we intend to get going next year unless the Department of Justice tells us otherwise," Comer said. "We are taking a very proactive stance in Kentucky. We've been trying to replace tobacco, and hemp is an option not only for our farmers, but it could also create manufacturing jobs in our rural communities."
The commission did meet Thursday, and it voted unanimously to move forward with industrial hemp production, aiming at producing hemp next year.
"That's our first goal, to get the crop established. Then, once companies and industries see that we have a crop here established and growing, we believe industries will start coming here looking for it instead of importing it from other countries," said Brian Furnish, chairman of the Industrial Hemp Commission, after the Thursday vote.
According to Vote Hemp, Kentucky isn't the only state planning on moving forward with hemp next year. Vermont just released its Hemp Registration Form that allows farmers to apply for hemp permits and the Colorado Department of Agriculture is developing regulations to license hemp farmers in 2014. North Dakota has issued permits for several years now.
Imported hemp is now a $500 million a year industry, Vote Hemp's Eric Steenstra said.
Congressman Thomas Massie (R-KY), who also played an important role in passing the Kentucky bill and who is a cosponsor of the House hemp bill, said he was encouraged by the Justice Department policy directive, but that it was not enough.
"We need more than a Justice Department ruling," he told the press conference. "As a farmer and entrepreneur, I want some certainty. I want a legislative remedy for this, and that's why I continue to push hard for our bill, which would exclude hemp from definition as a controlled substance."
But while the House hemp bill now has 47 cosponsors, it still has a long row to hoe. The hemp amendment to the Farm Bill, which would allow hemp production for university research purposes, has already passed the House and awaits action in conference committee.
"If you can attach an amendment to a spending bill, then you can get action," said Massie. "I have to give credit to Rep. Polis for doing this. This is a farm issue, not a drug issue. And while there was debate over whether it was wise to even have a vote, it passed. People decided spontaneously to vote for it as an amendment."
While the Senate has not passed a similar provision, Massie said he was hopeful that it would make it through conference committee.
"There is no equivalent in the Senate, there is no companion amendment, but we do have [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell, who is all for it," he said. "I'm hopeful it will survive, and we'll continue to work on the standalone hemp bill."
"It was important to get the House language in the Farm Bill," said Polis. "Not only does it allow universities to do research that is needed, but it also symbolically moves forward with embracing the potential for industrial hemp production."
Polis said he was cheered by the Justice Department's policy directive when it came to hemp.
"They listed eight enforcement priorities, and industrial hemp isn't even on the enforcement radar," the Boulder congressman said. "We see no federal interest in going after states or hemp producers. The risk is minimal. But minimal isn't good enough for some folks, and that's why we want to continue to gather support for the Industrial Hemp Farming Act. You don't want to have to depend on a federal prosecutor or the attorney general not getting up on the wrong side of the bed in the morning."
Industrial hemp may be an afterthought for Justice Department policy setters, but the recent guidance has emboldened hemp advocates to push forward faster than ever. Getting hemp research approved in the Farm Bill would be a good first step; passing the Industrial Hemp Act would be even better. But it doesn't look like some states are going to wait for Congress to act.