WASHINGTON — Hemp is a big winner in the new farm bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday.
While Congress has shown little interest in legalizing marijuana, members are warming up to industrial hemp, pot's nonintoxicating sister plant.
For the first time, the farm bill would allow nine states — including Oregon and California — to use hemp for research and academic purposes.
Legalizing hemp, even on a limited basis, would give new ammunition to pro-marijuana supporters, who want to scrap the federal ban against pot. Both are classified as controlled substances, long prohibited by Congress.
Craig Lee, a board member of the Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative Association in Lexington, predicted that the measure will be the first step toward full legalization of hemp, ultimately providing a big boost for the economy.
"Five years from now, if the hemp industry goes the way that it should go, it could create thousands and thousands of jobs," Lee said.
The farm bill would allow state departments of agriculture, colleges and universities to grow hemp for academic, research and marketing purposes in states that have voted to make cultivation legal.
Besides California and Oregon, the measure would apply to Colorado, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Kentucky, Vermont and West Virginia, said Tom Murphy, the national outreach coordinator for Vote Hemp, an organization that backs legalization.
He said the states would have to design regulations for their pilot programs and then register and certify all growing sites.
The legislation drew backing from lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle, from conservative Republicans such as Kentucky Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul to liberals such as Colorado Democratic Rep. Jared Polis. The American Farm Bureau added its muscle to the cause earlier this month, passing a resolution that urged declassifying hemp as a controlled substance.
Hemp is used in a wide array of products, including food, clothing, body-care products and construction materials. Growers say the industry has more than $500 million in annual retail sales.
While hemp was once widely grown in the United States, beginning in the Colonial days, its relationship to marijuana helped lead to the demise of commercial production in 1958, according to researchers at the University of Kentucky.
Law-enforcement officials have long complained that marijuana and hemp look so much alike that they can be distinguished only by chemical analysis. Both come from the same species, Cannabis sativa. But hemp has only a trace of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical that produces a high.