James Comer, Thomas Massie Lobby for Hemp in Washington, D.C.
Two Kentucky elected officials made the case for industrial hemp Tuesday at a briefing in Washington, D.C., in an effort to lobby Congress to legalize the plant for commercial production.U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie and state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer briefed Congressional staffers on the benefits of industrial hemp at a forum hosted by Vote Hemp, touting the benefits of the research and commercial production of industrial hemp, and how it’s radically different from its psychoactive cousin, marijuana. They were joined by Rep. Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat.The briefing came in the wake of a memo issued last month by Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole that reversed the U.S. Department of Justice’s stance toward state-level marijuana enforcement. The Aug. 30 memo states that the justice department will now respect state marijuana laws, provided that those states have in place a “strong and effective” regulatory framework.Comer argues that because hemp is not defined in the Controlled Substances Act, the justice department memo effectively paves the way for hemp’s de facto legal cultivation in Kentucky.The Kentucky General Assembly approved a bill in March by wide margins that permits Kentucky farmers and research institutions to grow, study and produce industrial hemp in the event that the federal government eases restrictions on the plant’s cultivation. Kentucky doesn’t have a medical marijuana law—nor has it liberalized personal marijuana production, possession and distribution like the states of Colorado and Washington did in 2012.Still, the justice department memo could be a game-changer, Comer said.But he said he won't wait on Congress, though congressional action is necessary to make the legalization of hemp permanent and to remove uncertainty for Kentucky farmers who intend to grow it.“That would be the easiest way to put this to rest, once and for all,” Comer said. “However, you know how difficult it is to pass any type of legislation in Washington. I don’t think we can afford to wait when this industry has the potential to emerge and grow.There are currently two bills circulating in Congress that seek to exempt hemp from the federal definition of marijuana: Senate Bill 359, co-sponsored by Kentucky Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, which is currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee; and House Resolution 525, introduced by Massie, which has been referred to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, And Investigations. Like McConnell and Paul, Massie and Comer are Republicans.An amendment to the as-yet unpassed 2013 farm bill includes language identical to Massie’s resolution, but it remains to be seen if Congress—currently embroiled in the debate over Syrian intervention—can pass it prior to its Sept. 30 deadline.Comer said that if neither bills pass, he intends to inform the Department of Justice that Kentucky’s farmers will go ahead and begin planting the first hemp crops by February 2014.Kentucky is one of 11 states to pass legislation making industrial hemp legal. A report on the economic benefits of hemp released in July by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service estimates that the potential market for hemp products in the United States is $500 million.