Advocates for criminal justice reform hope to convince lawmakers to reject a provision by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the Senate farm bill that would deny people with drug felony convictions the chance to be hemp farmers.
Nine Senate and 47 House negotiators met publicly for the first time Wednesday to lay out their positions on how to proceed in reconciling House and Senate versions of the five-year legislation. Lawmakers will push to have a compromise bill ready before the current farm and food policy law expires Sept. 30.
Opening hemp farming to former prisoners is likely to add a wrinkle to the conference negotiations, although the gnarliest issue between the two chambers will be the differing positions on work requirements for able-bodied adults receiving food aid under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the food stamp program.
Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and House Agriculture Chairman K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, opened the conference meeting and agreed that it is imperative that lawmakers deliver a farm bill this month. Conaway said SNAP was just one area of disagreement between the two versions of the farm bill, but he added that "I have seen no disagreement that should prevent us from completing a strong farm bill on time."
The farm bill, which would cost about $868 billion over 10 years, is wide-ranging and sets policy for farm income, crop insurance, conservation, nutrition, rural development and other programs.
The House bill, backed by Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., and conservative groups such as the Foundation for Government Accountability, expands and toughens enforcement of work requirements. It barely passed the House by 213-211 vote. The Senate version leaves current SNAP work requirements in place but tightens oversight of state-operated SNAP work and training programs. The Senate passed its bill on a 86-11 vote.
The hemp provision is a point of pride for McConnell, who is a farm bill conferee. The Kentucky Republican, who included language allowing hemp research in the 2014 farm bill, touts it as opening the door to a potentially lucrative crop for a new generation of farmers in his state. The Senate farm bill would remove hemp from restrictions under the Controlled Substance Act and allow for broader agricultural production of the plant throughout the United States and make hemp farmers eligible for federally subsidized crop insurance.
But the provision would not extend to people who have served a prison term for drug possession and other drug offenses such as manufacturing, delivery and dealing.
The ban on drug felons was included in a broader amendment by McConnell that was folded into a manager’s package approved June 13 at the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee’s farm bill markup. The hemp amendment was offered to head off a challenge by Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa. Grassley, an Agriculture Committee member, said McConnell had used the farm bill to bypass review of the hemp provision by the Judiciary Committee.
Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives for The Sentencing Project, said her organization and other groups visited congressional offices in August to highlight their concerns that the drug felony ban “is another attempt to complicate re-entry into society.”
The United States banned hemp production in 1937 because of fears over drug use although the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) level in hemp is far below its cousin marijuana and does not make people high.
The Sentencing Project also is fighting an amendment in the House farm bill version by Rep. George Holding, R-N.C., that would impose a lifetime ban for food assistance on people with convictions for violent crimes. It builds on a SNAP restriction currently in law, but the Holding language would not allow states to opt out of the ban, Gotsch said. As separate ban on food stamp benefits to people with drug convictions also allows exemptions for states that pass legislation to continue food aid despite drug convictions.
Gotsch said 68 groups such as Bread for the World, a Christian charity, signed onto a letter to the House and Senate Agriculture committees opposing the hemp language, Holding's SNAP amendment and other issues.
She said the Senate farm bill language is so broad it could affect people who have decades-old drug felony convictions. Gotsch cites President Donald Trump’s support for changes to the treatment of people returning to society after serving time in prison.
Jared Kusher, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, is reported to be finalizing a criminal justice reform package with members of the Senate.
Trump backed a prison overhaul measure (HR 5682) the House easily passed in May. It aims to prepare federal prisoners for release so they are less likely to commit another crime. Trump does not yet back the broader bipartisan Senate legislation (S 1917) championed by Grassley that also includes changes to some federal sentencing laws, but still wants to see a bill passed, a White House official said.
“It’s unfair and unjust to be penalizing someone who may have committed crimes decades ago,” Gotsch said.
Michael Collins, interim director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s national affairs, said he believes the provision is a stumbling block for people trying to rebuild their lives. That, he says, will stir bipartisan concern among lawmakers interested in moving people from prison into the workforce, particularly at a time when unemployment is low and many employers complain of trouble finding workers.
“I think what you’re going to see is a decent amount of pushback on this from folks on the Hill, both Democrats and Republicans,” Collins said. “A lot of folks on the Hill are big supporters of criminal justice reform, big supporters of re-entry. There are numerous pieces of legislation out there trying to allow individuals to re-enter society after having a conviction.”
Collins said the inability to find work after prison often leads people to commit crimes that send them back to prison.
Job bans based on drug convictions means “people are left with this scarlet letter for the rest of their lives,” Collins said.
McConnell spokeswoman Stephanie Penn said via email that the ban on former prisoners is among several recommendations the Senate majority leader received from Trump, Senate Judiciary Committee members and other parties. Penn did not identify who suggested the ban or whether it could apply to anyone handling hemp in the farm-to-market industry, as Gotsch argues.
Todd Ruger contributed to this report.