Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he wants to revive hemp as a major agricultural product in the U.S. and plans to file a bill to remove hemp from the federal list of controlled substances.
It’s currently illegal to grow hemp without a permit because it’s a member of the same species as cannabis. But, hemp has a negligible amount of the high-inducing compound THC.
McConnell told a room full of hemp promoters in Frankfort on Monday that he thinks the country is ready to legalize the plant.
“By recognizing in federal statute the difference between hemp and its illicit cousin, we can allow this industry to continue to flourish here in Kentucky,” McConnell said.
Hemp can be used to make food, clothing and cannabidiol, a therapeutic oil derived from the plant.
Since the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, states have been allowed to approve hemp projects for limited research and development.
McConnell said his bill would continue to allow states to regulate hemp, create federal grants to spur more research and allow hemp goods to be transported through states that haven’t legalized the product.
Brian Furnish is an eighth-generation tobacco farmer from Cynthiana and one of the first to legally grow hemp after the 2014 rules went into effect.
He said hemp is helping wean his business off of tobacco as profits from Kentucky’s former cash crop dwindle.
“Back in the day when I was a kid growing up on the farm, tobacco was king, but not anymore,” Furnish said. “I hope to see on my farm in the next five years that there won’t be any tobacco. Other than just a little bit, just for sentimental reasons.”
McConnell said he plans to discuss the bill with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has taken a hardline stance against states that have legalized cannabis for recreational and medicinal uses.
“I think we’ve worked our way through the education process of making sure everybody understands this is really a different plant,” McConnell said.
The Kentucky Department of Agriculture approved 12,800 acres across 71 counties to be used for hemp cultivation this year.
There are more than 200 hemp growers and 40 processors in the state.
Thirty other states have hemp pilot projects.