Declaring he has "won the argument" on hemp, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that the Senate is on track for a vote to legalize the crop that comes from the same plant that produces marijuana.
The Senate Agriculture Committee is scheduled to consider the farm bill Wednesday. It will include a provision to remove hemp from a list of Schedule I controlled substances, making it legal for farmers to grow and sell the crop. Although far from becoming law, the step is noted progress for an idea that has faced staunch opposition among conservative lawmakers.
"We've won the argument that this is not about marijuana," McConnell said about hemp. "Now we just need to pass the law. And I'm in a uniquely well-situated position to make that happen."
The committee is scheduled to meet one day after McConnell set a record by becoming the longest-serving GOP leader in the Senate's history, surpassing former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas. He says the leadership role allows for small, rural Kentucky to "punch above its weight" when competing against states like New York and California that have large congressional delegations.
"I'm going to run again for leader in November and I'm going to run again for Senate in 2020," McConnell said. "I'm grateful to have had the confidence of my colleagues over the years."
Kentucky farmers have been growing hemp legally since 2014 as part of a federal pilot program, but they've still had some trouble. In the program's first year, the Drug Enforcement Administration seized an initial shipment of hemp seeds to Kentucky. The state had to go to court to get them released.
Although the fledgling hemp and marijuana industries grew during the relaxed policies of former President Barack Obama's administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been less welcoming of the cannabis plant. But McConnell says he has spoken with Sessions about hemp, saying he doesn't expect him to embrace it but "he certainly indicated he is not going to oppose us."
Hemp was once one of Kentucky's biggest crops. Ryan Quarles, the state's Republican agriculture commissioner, says his grandfather grew hemp during World War II because "the Navy needed rope." The crop disappeared after the cannabis plant was banned. Kentucky farmers moved on to tobacco, only to see it falter after 2004 when the federal government stopped paying farmers to grow it.
In 2014, the state had just 32 acres (13 hectares) of hemp planted. This year, state officials have authorized more than 14,000 acres (5,650 hectares) of hemp cultivation.
Brian Furnish is an eighth-generation tobacco farmer in central Kentucky. But he said 2018 was the first year his family earned more money from hemp than tobacco. He has 600 acres (243 hectares) of hemp now, using it for food, medicine and a new high-end clothing line called "Hemp Black" scheduled to debut next month. He said officially legalizing hemp would help remove the stigma surrounding the plant and make it easier for farmers to market it.
"It's tremendous for us," he said. "We can start going after crop insurance and research dollars."