WASHINGTON -- A chance encounter at last weekend's Kentucky Derby may have given the hemp industry the break it's been looking for since the crop was banned in 1970, when the federal government classified it as a controlled substance related to marijuana.
Kentucky's Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer, a Republican, told The Huffington Post that he was at a private pre-derby party on Saturday when he found himself chatting with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his chief of staff Mike Sommers. Comer talked shop.
The topic at hand was the fate of the hemp industry in Kentucky, which could become the first state in the nation to successfully lobby for federal approval. Boehner and Sommers were interested enough to invite Comer and the chief supporters of the state's legalization bill to a meeting in Washington.
On Tuesday night, Boehner sat down with Comer and the bill's lead backers, Republican state Sen. Paul Hornback and Democrat Jonathan Miller, a former Kentucky state treasurer who currently serves on the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission (and who also moonlights as a HuffPost blogger). Sommers confirmed the meeting took place.
According to Comer, Boehner told the trio he would talk with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) about how a federal bill might be moved forward to remove hemp from the list of controlled substances. On Thursday, Comer and the Kentucky legislators plan to meet with McConnell, who surprised observers back home by endorsing Hornback's hemp bill, a move that quickly brought the state GOP in line.
The most likely path to passage for hemp legislation runs through the farm bill, as an amendment. That bill goes up for debate in the Senate Agriculture Committee next week -- fortuitous timing for hemp.
"I was impressed with his knowledge of this issue," Comer said of Boehner. "At the end he said, 'This is funny, because this issue's been around a long time. My daughter was talking about this 15 years ago.' So this is something he knows a lot about. And the difference today, as opposed to 10 years ago, is the only people who were pushing this issue 10 years ago were the extreme right or left, or people who wanted to legalize marijuana." Comer spoke with HuffPost and a Roll Call reporter in the office of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), their home base while they're in Washington, working with the group Vote Hemp, which advocates on behalf of the industry.
Kentucky's hemp bill, Senate Bill 50, became law in April and allows Bluegrass State farmers to grow industrial hemp for the first time in decades. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and local police have expressed concerns that allowing farmers to cultivate hemp would enable them to disguise the cultivation of illegal marijuana, which looks very similar to hemp but contains much higher levels of THC, the psychoactive agent in cannabis. Experts dismissed that argument, noting that cross-pollination between hemp plants and marijuana plants would significantly reduce the potency of the marijuana and devalue the crop. Beshear and Kentucky police remained skeptical, though the governor did not ultimately veto the legislation, letting it become law without his signature.
The chief objection, Miller said, came from a small element of law enforcement who feared "that this is a slippery slope, that they would lose money with marijuana eradication." The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, however, backed the bill.
Now Kentucky awaits federal action to approve the plant's cultivation. The Drug Enforcement Administration currently classifies hemp as a Schedule I substance with "a high potential for abuse," alongside heroin and LSD, despite the fact that industrial hemp has zero potential for abuse.
Comer said that the DEA has so far declined to meet with him or the Kentucky lawmakers, so they are hoping instead to meet with the Department of Justice, which oversees the DEA. He said that meetings with the Departments of Energy and Agriculture went well.
Paul and McConnell are co-sponsoring federal legislation that would remove the plant from the DEA's list of illegal drugs. A similar effort is also underway in the House, boosted by members of Kentucky's congressional delegation, with the exception of Rep. Harold Rogers (R). Should those efforts fail, the senators have vowed to seek a waiver from the DEA granting Kentucky special dispensation to grow hemp.
Other states that have also passed local laws allowing hemp licensure include Vermont, North Dakota, Maine, Montana, Oregon, Washington, West Virginia and Colorado. While some have sought federal validation of state laws from the DEA, those efforts have been unsuccessful to date.