Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell are about to legalize hemp and mainstream CBD

Hemp has become one of the US’s rare bipartisan issues of 2018, and next week Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill that will end its prohibition.

This week, Congress passed the 2018 Farm Bill—which contains a section that legalizes hemp production—with overwhelming support, and it’s headed to the president’s desk to be signed into law next week.

“I’d be happy to loan him my hemp pen for the occasion,” said Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.

McConnell, a staunch conservative and opponent of marijuana legalization, has emerged as a champion for hemp, sponsoring the bill that eventually made its way into the omnibus legislation. If this seems incongruous, consider that hemp could be a new cash crop for farmers in his home state of Kentucky, where tobacco acreage has fallen by nearly 90% over the last century, and that industry analysts estimate the US market for the hemp-derived compound cannabidiol (CBD) will be worth nearly $600 million this year.

AP PHOTO/BRUCE SCHREINER, FILE
Mitch McConnell examines his new favorite crop at a hemp processing plant in Kentucky.

CBD is a boon for farmers

Farmers in states such as Kentucky have been planting hemp since the 2014 Farm Bill opened up state-regulated pilot programs for planting “industrial hemp,” which it defined as cannabis sativa plants containing 0.3% or less THC—not enough to get anyone stoned. This left a great deal of ambiguity around the legality of CBD, touted as a cure-all and found in everything from lattes to doggie treats to bath bombs.

Now, the 2018 Farm Bill is poised to open up hemp for farmers—making it eligible for crop insurance and allowing transfer across state lines—and CBD for consumers. It will explicitly remove industrial hemp and its extracts from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, where it might be interpreted as marijuana, which the US Drug Enforcement Administration states has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” (despite evidence to the contrary).

While the new Farm Bill does establish hemp as an agricultural commodity, it’s not exactly a free-for-all. As John Hudak writes for the Brookings Institute, the federal government and states will share regulatory power over hemp cultivation. States will have to submit their programs for monitoring cultivation to the USDA for approval. In the event that states don’t create their own plans, hemp producers will have to comply with a federally run program. And the bill does not broadly legalize all CBD products, but rather those that contain CBD derived from legally produced industrial hemp.

What’s more, one provision prohibits people with drug-related felonies on their records from producing hemp for a decade following their convictions. (A previous version of the Farm Bill contained a version that would ban people with felonies for life.) The ban is antithetical to the overall legalization of hemp, Oregon Democratic senator Jeff Merkley told Politico’s James Higdon: “You’ve got a de-scheduled, non-drug crop, so why would you ban drug felons?”

It also reinforces the problematic legacy of the US war on drugs, which saw the criminal justice system disproportionately target and punish people of color for political reasons.

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