Decades before cannabis was made illegal in 1937, hemp was a big cash crop for Kentucky. In 1850, the Bluegrass State produced 40,000 tons of the stuff. During World War II, the government paid citizens to grow the plant. Now it's at the center of a bill that would legalize hemp on a federal level.
As you may know, hemp is a weakly psychoactive strain of Cannabis sativa. But hemp's pitifully low count—an average of less than 1 percent compared to an average 18.7 percent in Colorado's dank bud—in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of cannabis, makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get blazed on hemp. Hemp can't even make you fail a drug test.
Even so, the US has threatened farmers who grow it and often treated it like a dangerous drug: the plant remains forbidden in the eyes of the federal government, which blanket-banned all forms of cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. Now, republican Rep. James Comer of Kentucky is sponsoring the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2017, with the bipartisan support of 16 congresspeople. Kentucky's two Republican senators—Rand Paul and yes, even Mitch McConnell—are also in support of the bill.
"A lot of the older folks here remember their parents growing it on their farms," Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie, a co-sponsor of the bill, told me in a phone call. "There's not this opposition from older conservative voters in Kentucky that you might see in states that aren't familiar with hemp."
Hemp is useful for making more than 25,000 products, including textiles, paper, and food. One of its main extracts, cannabidiol (CBD) shows promise for many medical conditions, including epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder. This rapidly growing industry was estimated to be worth $688 million in 2016 and more than 30 states have laws allowing for hemp production, despite the federal regulations. Of course, that didn't stop the DEA from conducting raids in some areas, which led to at least one lawsuit.
"A lot of the older folks here remember their parents growing it on their farms"
In 2013, Comer was Kentucky's Commissioner of Agriculture, a position that gave him leverage to insert an industrial hemp amendment in the Agricultural Act of 2014. Under certain conditions, it allowed states to grow hemp if it was for research purposes and attached to a university. In 2015, two bills were introduced to Congress that would have legalized hemp federally. Both bills died in committee.
"Before I was the sponsor of [the hemp bill], Ron Paul was the sponsor, and I've carried the bill for two years and I passed the torch to James Comer," Massie said. "He has modified it some to be more copacetic for [Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Bob] Goodlatte and the law enforcement community. I think that's another reason it may get over the finish line—we have another ally in this fight who was just elected to Congress nine months ago."
The hemp bill comes at a critical time for cannabis reform. In July, New Jersey democrat Sen. Cory Booker introduced a bill that would federally legalize marijuana. Just weeks later, the National Conference of State Legislatures called for entirely removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act to allow banks to do business with weed-related industries. (Cannabis is currently a Schedule 1 controlled substance, meaning the government considers it to have a high potential for abuse and no medical value.)
Comer's bill is welcomed by the hemp industry, but not without some concessions. Ananda Hemp, a Kentucky company that was first to be licensed as a hemp producer under the 2014 Farm Bill, has endorsed the bill, but company founder John Ryan told me it isn't entirely perfect.
"There's some language in the bill…that could potentially limit the ability to process CBD," Ryan said in a phone call, adding that CBD is Ananda Hemp's main source of revenue. "There was also some language that alluded to some FDA oversights in regards to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act, but again, we think we could properly lobby, educate, readjust the bill and it'll be something that will be very beneficial for everybody in the industry."
"I believe that these are the guys that can get it done, because they have a proven track record," Ryan added.
Some in Kentucky also see hemp as a solution to the state's ailing tobacco industry—both plants grow well in the area. Ananda Hemp even contracts with an eighth-generation tobacco farmer, who Ryan says is the first in his family who can't make money from this crop.
Read More: Hemp Against Hitler
"The state has been hit really hard by everything that's happened to the tobacco industry, obviously. Demand is down, prices are up, taxes are up, subsidies are completely gone," Ryan explained. "So when the tobacco subsidies ran out, these guys were looking for a new crop they could bring to their state."
This could be gamechanging news from the state that had to burn 100 pounds of hemp because it was too dank.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.