The upcoming farm bill might be a venue for legalizing industrial hemp production, at least if Kentucky lawmakers get their way.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his home-state GOP colleague Rand Paul are already among those backing the proposal along with numerous House members, and advocates are looking for more support in advance of next week's Senate farm bill markup.
Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James R. Comer is on Capitol Hill this week meeting with senior lawmakers and promoting proposals to remove federal barriers to cultivating hemp, including a measure being pushed by Paul with the backing of McConnell. Kentucky legalized production at the state level in April.
"You can make textiles. The Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper," Comer said. "It was a leading crop that Henry Clay grew and Abraham Lincoln's in-laws grew in Kentucky."
Comer and two Kentucky colleagues said in an interview in Paul's office that meetings with lawmakers and administration officials were going well and that the trio had not encountered much opposition, except, as former Kentucky State Treasurer Jonathan Miller acknowledged, from law enforcement.
"Most of all, we believe it's based on the fear that this is a slippery slope and they would lose money with marijuana eradication, and it's a lack of education." Miller said, noting that the group's attempts to meet with the Drug Enforcement Administration had been fruitless.
Advocates say that law enforcement should no longer worry about telling the difference between pot and hemp, which are related but not the same plant.
"We have found tremendous policy support from liberal Democrats, conservative Republicans, everybody in between, but law enforcement continues to have some reservations based on what we think is misinformation, so we're trying to clear up the record," Miller said.
The most likely legislative path forward for hemp legalization seems to be attaching language to the farm bill that's scheduled for markup next Tuesday by the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. McConnell is a longtime member of the Agriculture panel.
"That was something that really shocked a lot of people," Comer said of McConnell's support, which was announced in January. They are set to meet with the two Kentucky senators on Thursday morning.
McConnell said in a statement to CQ Roll Call that he looked forward to the meeting with Comer.
"He's been a strong leader on the hemp legislation in Kentucky, which has the potential to provide an economic boost to Kentucky, create jobs and allow Kentucky farmers to harness the economic potential that industrial hemp can provide," McConnell said. "I will continue to work with Senator Paul on a federal approach that would enable Kentucky farmers to cultivate and profit from industrial hemp in a way that does not compromise Kentucky law enforcement’s marijuana eradication efforts or in any way promote illegal drug use.”
"I think that an amendment to the farm bill is a good option, and if we decide that's the best strategy to use to try to get it done, I think that's probably what we'll do," state Sen. Paul Hornback said. "And we'll ask Sen. McConnell if he could do that in committee."
"With respect to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the people we met with representing Secretary Vilsack seemed very supportive of our efforts to legalize hemp," Comer said. "They gave suggestions on things that we could do from a legislative standpoint, maybe through the farm bill."
Comer said he's pushing for an executive order allowing Kentucky to move forward with a state law allowing hemp cultivation, but Miller cited a fear that a different White House might change the policy and leave farmers in a bit of a lurch.
Comer said he also met with Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, about the subject on Tuesday, which Boehner's office confirmed.
"He was very aware of the issue, and I felt like he was very receptive to ... our efforts," Comer said. The Kentucky visitors said Boehner suggested they discuss the matter with House Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., before that panel takes up a farm bill, which could also come next week.
Coincidentally, Comer said that he ran into Boehner at a small private gathering in Kentucky the night before last Saturday's running of the Kentucky Derby and brought up the subject of federal hemp policy there as well.
At the end of the day though, the hemp production advocates said they would leave decisions about the legislative process up to their powerful backers up to their top supporters in D.C.
"Some of those decisions about whether it will be on the farm bill are going to be at a very high level," Miller said.