A long dark period of hemp prohibition ended earlier this week when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced the passage of the 2018 Agricultural Improvement Act. The measure, which incorporates the entirety of House Bill 7606, the Industrial Hemp Farming act, legalizes agricultural hemp after 81 years of federal prohibition. In addition to classifying hemp as a fully-legal agricultural commodity, the bill provides for the immediate the removal of agricultural hemp from the list of Schedule 1 Controlled Substances and makes hemp producers eligible for crop insurance, commercial banking and applying for competitive USDA grants for research and development.
While McConnell attributed hemp’s unfortunate prohibition to its proximity to marijuana, historians point toward more sinister motives having to do with the emergence of the industrial revolution when tycoons from the oil, chemical and pharmaceutical industries sought to eliminate competition for synthetics which would replace hemp for making textiles, paper, plastics, building materials, fuel, soap, oil, medicine and other common products that had been made of hemp.
The truth is there was never any justifiable basis for listing hemp or any variety of cannabis sativa L. among the world’s most dangerous drugs in Schedule 1 under the 1971 Controlled Substances Act. In fact, unlike Schedule 1 drugs, which have no known medical use and a high potential for abuse, hemp has proven therapeutic benefits without any psychoactive effect and, therefore, has no potential for abuse whatsoever.
Once widely revered as one of nature’s most abundant, sustainable and useful plant resources, hemp was a staple commodity and one of the most lucrative cash crops until 1937 when Congress blindsided farmers with the surreptitious passage of the 1937 Marihuana Tax Stamp Act. The measure coincided with the brilliant but deceptive “Reefer Madness” campaign, which successfully demonized “marihuana” with racially-charged falsehoods that successfully prepped an unwitting public for the end of the booming hemp economy. Ironically, hemp prohibition was momentarily reversed when the U.S. Government realized a shortfall in military provisions previously made with hemp during WWII. A widely distributed film titled “Hemp for Victory” urgently called upon all agricultural land owners to re-plant hemp crops to replenish supplies. Once the war ended, the hemp ban resumed and endured ever since.
Despite repeated efforts to remove hemp from Schedule 1, U.S. farmers have been barred from enjoying the financial rewards of participating in the booming hemp trade.
When Korean War veteran Jack Herer learned about the injustice of hemp prohibition, “he felt betrayed,” said son Dan Herer in a recent interview on The Cannabis Reporter Radio Show. When he launched a crusade to call attention to the lies and liberate hemp from the confines of Schedule 1, he became known as “The Emperor of Hemp” and sparked controversy with his frequent civil disobedience. He eventually served time in prison for resisting arrest at a protest. While incarcerated he wrote a draft of his famed book titled The Emperor Wears No Clothes, which galvanized a movement of hemp activism. Unfortunately, his tireless lobbying efforts and those of other early advocates fell on deaf ears in Congress. Jack Herer sadly passed away before he realized his mission to legalize hemp.
The landmark documentary titled Hempsters: Plant The Seed featuring David Bronner, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Woody Harrelson and a handful of other celebrity activists took the crusade into the public spotlight. When Hempsters filmmaker Diana Oliver chronicled several of them as they were arrested planting hemp seeds in front of the DEA Museum, the spectacle triggered more mainstream media coverage. It would take years of education by hemp industry advocacies for the movement to capture widespread public support. CNN’s documentary “Weed” marked a turning point, when the paradigm shifted: hemp advocacy was no longer a fringe movement.
As reports about scientific breakthroughs regarding the medical benefits of CBD emerged out of Israel and other countries where hemp and cannabis were legal, demand for hemp started growing. While other countries revitalized the hemp industry to answer the call, the U.S. became one of the largest importers of hemp dry goods. When the Hemp Industries Association won a lawsuit against the DEA in 2004, hemp-derived nutritional supplements containing the potent antioxidant and neuroprotective molecule known as cannabidiol (CBD) became legal to import and sell throughout the U.S. Until then, a half dozen incarnations of hemp legislation had been introduced and shuffled off to various Congressional committees only to disappear into a black hole before ever reaching a floor vote. It wasn’t until 2013, less than one year after Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize cannabis for adult use, when the first measure to reform industrial hemp policy. Section 7606 of the 2014 Farming Act, which allowed for pilot programs to conduct academic research on industrial hemp in three states – passed in the Senate, but not without much contentious debate.
“At the core of this movement, the argument has always been that hemp should be an agricultural crop,” said Michael Bowman, Founding Chair of the National Hemp Association who had authored several hemp bills introduced in both houses of Congress. Working with Micah Nelson, son of long time agricultural hemp advocate and recording artist Willie Nelson, Bowman also launched a modern “Hemp For Victory” campaign to revitalize the American hemp industry and raise awareness about the vital need for a hemp economy.
“There appeared to be little appetite in the upper chamber for hemp,” Bowman explained, adding that there was also a level of mistrust between the Democratic and Republican conferees. He recalled that, in May of 2013, Senate republicans flatly rejected a stand-alone hemp bill introduced by Senator Ron Wyden fearing that, if they accepted the House language, they would later appear soft on the War on Drugs.
A month later, when Congress was in the process of finalizing what would become the 2014 Farming Act, Bowman decided to craft scaled back language that would have a greater chance of passing GOP scrutiny. The result was a measure that would allow for accredited academic and scientific institutions, including land grant universities and state departments of agriculture, to conduct hemp research and test economic feasibility in three states. Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO) agreed to introduce the language in the House. The language, first presented to the House Rules Committee the morning of June 19, 2013, was ultimately accepted and became known as Polis Amendment #192 – the ‘Legitimacy of Hemp Research’ provision. It was later officially designated as Amendment 37 to H.R. 1947 in the House version of the (then) 2013 Farm Bill.
“In the midst of these activities I made a call to the founding Vice-Chair of the National Hemp Association, Samantha Walsh, to ask if she could find industrial hemp fabric and have a regulation-sized American flag crafted for Jared to show as a prop when he argued the amendment on the House floor,” said Bowman. “The flag literally arrived just hours before Jared’s floor speech.”
According to Bowman, Representatives Blumenauer, Thomas Massie and Colin Peterson spoke in favor of the amendment. The lone wolf in opposition was Congressman Steve King (R-IA) who dutifully recited DEA talking points.
“It was at that moment that two very different visions for rural America were on display: one that embraced a future where industrial hemp could be a catalyst for a rural renaissance, delivering freedom, rejecting false narratives; the other, one that kept our future mired in the past, in the chains of federal policy steeped in a position undependable by science or common sense,” Bowman said. At 9:00 p.m. he learned Amendment 37 was approved.
“As I walked out of the chamber that evening I looked up at the American flag over the Capitol Building. The thought crossed my mind how special it would be to have the flag we just used on the House floor to fly over the Capitol on July 4? What a way to tell our story.” On July 4, after nearly eight decades of Prohibition, he said, “Our hemp Old Glory flew proudly over the Capitol.”
Approval of Amendment 37 was a major victory. But the battle over final provisions in the Farming Act was far from over. According to Bowman, H.R. 1947 was a contentious bill in large part because of efforts by House Republicans to gut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and decouple that program from the agricultural bill. The first attempt at passage before the July 4th recess failed. When, after the recess, the second attempt passed Congress, language had yet to be reconciled in the Senate Conference.
“An unsung hero in this journey to de-schedule hemp is Colorado Senator Michael Bennet,” Bowman recalled. Of the twelve Senate Conferees and twenty-nine House Conferees, none were from Kentucky; Colorado’s Senator Michael Bennet was both a Conferee and in the majority party at the time. “Bennet and McConnell had a shared interest in seeing the language remain in the final report. An agreement was made between the two, Senator Bennet delivered the majority and the rest is history.”
On February 7, 2014, President Obama signed the 2014 Farming Act and Section 7606 became the law of the land. He also signed legislation protecting producers from becoming DEA targets for federal prosecution in regulation states.
Combined with legal protections provided under the 9th Circuit Appellate Court ruling in the 2004 DEA v. HIA lawsuit, legality set forth in Section 7606 of the 2014 Farming Act unleashed a wave of prosperity for hemp industry stakeholders. Having exceed the most optimistic expectations of growth, there was no denying that revitalizing the U.S. hemp industry would have tremendous economic upsides.
While politicians became more amenable to policy reform, the DEA continued to fight back for reasons that weren’t readily obvious. Although, considering that the DEA’s very foundation was predicated on Nixon’s War On Drugs, it would be safe to assume that the agency’s resistance to cannabis policy reform at any level is merely a matter of survival. After all, its power and size would be diminished if it lost the annual budget appropriations granted by Congress for the sole purpose of enforcing marijuana laws. In anticipation of an anti-marijuana agenda of a the newly-elected administration’s DOJ, the DEA quietly issued a notice in the Federal Registry that it had assigned CBD a numerical code distinguishing it from the marijuana classification in Schedule 1 of the CSA. The move, sanctioned by the inbound administration, blindsided the hemp industry and set in motion a cascade of rule revisions including a reversal of the 9th Circuit order protecting the legality of CBD made with imported hemp and, more recently, California’s ban on CBD-infused food products, which occurred after the state’s adult use legalization measure went into effect.
Despite the setbacks born from new ambiguity in the law, the hemp industry continued to thrive. In 2017 alone, more than 30,000 acres of hemp grown in Colorado, Kentucky and Vermont under the 2014 policy, producing more than $200 Million in product. The success of the pilot programs in those states galvanized the support of GOP senators who had previously opposed hemp policy reform. It became clear that failure to support it wouldn’t bode well for fiscal conservatives.
In 2017, Congressman James Comer (R-KY) introduced a new stand-alone iteration of the Hemp Farming Act, which included the original language co-authored by Bowman. Simultaneously, the Senate was considering its own version of Comer’s bill that could be incorporated into House Majority Leader McConnell’s sweeping new farm bill. The 2018 Agricultural Improvement Act, which incorporated nearly the entire of language of the stand-alone bill, passed by a wide margin through the Senate floor vote.
“It was time for the American farmer to show everyone what hemp could do,” said McConnel in his address to the Senate the day he signed the bill. While the majority party has focused on the economic upsides, hemp policy reform has potential to improve medical access to the healing benefits of hemp CBD and satisfy the left-leaning environmental agenda as well. Pending growth of hemp infrastructure, nature’s most sustainable, abundant and renewable natural resource could ultimately eliminate our country’s dependence on fossil fuels, drastically reduce the rate of deforestation, restore vital carbon nutrients into depleted agricultural soil and reverse the dangerous trends of climate change. “Really, the victory is for the growers, product manufacturers and consumers who stand to benefit from the growing hemp marketplace.”
More than eight decades after the dark ages of hemp prohibition began, the passage of this sweeping farm bill liberates hemp from the shadows of prohibition for once and for all, a welcome victory for the many activists who have risked everything to make it happen.
“What started as a powerful symbol of rebirth over our Capitol building just five years ago can, today, be looked at as a ‘Mission (nearly) Accomplished”: a powerful testament to the power of Yankee ingenuity, to the grit and brilliance of American entrepreneurs.”
“I’m especially proud because this will open doors for farmers in Kentucky and around the country to explore the potential of industrial hemp,” said McConnell, who explained that the bill should have no problem passing the House. Using a 3D “Hemp Pen” gifted by Mark Linday of Green Spring Technologies, Senator McConnell signed the 2018 Agricultural Improvement Act before sending it to Congress for a final vote on the House Floor. He concluded, “I’d be happy to loan them my Hemp Pen for the occasion.”
That night, Congress passed the bill. A long time coming, the win marks the dawning of a modern Hemp Renaissance with promise for a healthier, more prosperous, carbon neutral future on the horizon.