Senate bill would legalize industrial hemp, open up federal research funding

Andrew Wagaman The Morning Call (Allentown

A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate on April 12 would legalize industrial hemp farming and make federal research funding available to those studying hemp’s various potential uses.

The Hemp Farming Act of 2018, introduced by Sen. Majority Leader and Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell, would remove industrial hemp from Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substance Act and turn over regulation to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which would in turn allow state agriculture departments to create their own regulatory programs.

The bill also would also enable researchers to apply for funding through USDA and allow farmers to obtain crop insurance for hemp.

Industrial hemp is the straight-laced sibling of marijuana. Both come from the same fibrous cannabis plant, but hemp has less than half a percent of the psychoactive substance that gets you high — delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Nevertheless, the Controlled Substances Act still classifies hemp under its broad definition of marijuana as a drug with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

Congress authorized states to create industrial hemp research pilot programs as part of the 2014 Farm Bill. More than 30 states have created such programs, including Pennsylvania in 2015, but legal uncertainty has remained because the Controlled Substances Act technically prohibits certain activities that the Farm Bill has authorized.

McConnell’s bill clears up that uncertainty, allowing farmers to sell goods produced from hemp across state lines without fear of reprisal by the Drug Enforcement Administration. This should also ease the concerns of banking institutions reluctant to work with hemp farmers.

“The United States is the largest importing nation of hemp products in the world and the only importing nation not to have a national policy.” said Geoff Whaling of Berks County, chairman of the National Hemp Association. “That translates into millions of dollars of products coming into the United States, and we think those jobs and opportunities should be here for our farmers and manufacturers. The Hemp Farming Act changes all of that.”

A similar bill co-sponsored by three members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation was introduced in the House of Representatives last summer.

Lehigh University, Jefferson University and the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council are exploring an ambitious partnership aimed at becoming a matrix for the nascent U.S. industry. The research alliance — yet to be formalized — would seek a federal “center of excellence” designation, giving it first dibs on some pots of U.S. Department of Agriculture funding. It also hopes to establish a relationship with international companies that own the distinctive harvesting equipment and processing technology needed to develop a commercially viable market.

“It is far past time for Congress to pass this commonsense, bipartisan legislation to end the outrageous anti-hemp, anti-farmer and anti-jobs stigma that’s been codified into law and is holding back growth in American agriculture jobs and our economy at large,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon who co-sponsored the bill.