Republican congressman James Comer said new industrial hemp legislation he filed in the House on Friday has the credibility and bipartisanship it needs to become law.
The Tompkinsville lawmaker representing Kentucky's 1st Congressional District managed to find support from both sides of the aisle and even sway GOP leaders who have stamped out industrial hemp efforts in the past.
It's the latest in an ongoing effort Comer championed as Kentucky's commissioner of agriculture and later on the campaign trail to promote the cannabis sativa plant variety for its commercial uses. That's the same species of cannabis plant from which marijuana is derived, but the hemp strain has far lower concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive component found in the recreational drug.
Comer's bill, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2017, would declassify cannabis sativa L, or hemp, as a Schedule I narcotic under U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency policy.
"It's a huge step forward," Comer said Monday. "It reclassifies hemp to an agricultural crop like corn or soybeans where it belongs."
In 2013, Kentucky passed Senate Bill 50, which established the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission, and, drawing on a new section in the Federal Farm Bill, authorized hemp research projects under the department of agriculture and at state universities. But as Kentucky farmers who participated in research projects tried to take their yield to market, Comer said they ran into unnecessary roadblocks.
Insurance companies, banks or investors -- especially those from states that have not authorized research under the farm bill -- are unable to do business with farmers actively engaged in cultivating what the federal government considers a Schedule I drug. In some cases, Comer said, farmers can lose their entire insurance plans merely because they chose to grow a small hemp plot for research and testing.
By eliminating the classification and separating hemp from what Comer facetiously called its "evil cousin" marijuana, Kentucky and other states can move toward re-establishing hemp as a cash crop.
"It will help attract investors to develop the infrastructure to support demand," he said. "There are a million things you can do with hemp, and people want to invest in processing it, but they're scared to because it's a controlled substance."
Demand is limited now to largely novelty uses such as lip balm or soaps, he said. Those are important, but the start-up companies that make them often don't require multimillion-dollar investments, so they can skirt DEA policy. Manufacturers that could utilize hemp fiber in the large-scale production of plastics, however, aren't so lucky, and they've avoided testing the market waters for fear of getting caught up in a dispute over legality.
This isn't the first time Congress has taken up the issue of industrial hemp. House Resolution 525 and Senate Bill 134 in 2015 both died in committee without broad support from either party. Comer's effort, however, involves not only GOP leadership, but legislators representing the far left and far right of the chamber.
Both 2015 bills died in judiciary committees, which are partly responsible for overseeing the Controlled Substance Act. After seven months of what he characterized as exhausting work, Comer has been able to gain the support of Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Roanoke, Virginia, Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.
On Friday, he released a statement acknowledging hemp's legitimate agricultural uses and promising to move the legislation forward in the House.
"I've met many Virginia farmers who are ready to commercially produce and create a market for industrial hemp in the U.S., but outdated, though well-intentioned, federal restrictions on the cultivation and commercialization of this crop stand in the way," the statement read.
Comer said he believes his efforts to sway the congressman came down to Virginia's own legislative legalization efforts and ongoing discussions he's had with farmers frustrated with the limited appeal.
"Goodlatte knows I'm not some crazy person filing a bill just to file a bill," he said. "I worked closely with him for seven months to compromise on a piece of legislation. It wasn't everything I wanted, and it wasn't everything he wanted, but the fact that we've got the chairman of the Judiciary Committee co-sponsoring the legislation gives this bill a ton of credibility."
Reps. Jared Polis, a Boulder, Colorado, Democrat, and Thomas Massie, a Vanceburg Republican, are also top co-sponsors for the bill. Massie, a vocal member of the House Freedom Caucus, and Polis, whom Comer called a strong liberal, represent both sides of a nonpartisan issue, he said.
A Comer spokesperson on Monday confirmed that Senate colleagues are working on drafting a similar bill across the hall on Capitol Hill. The congressman, he said, looks forward to working with those senators on finding a path forward for industrial hemp.
Both chambers are on a monthlong recess and are expected to reconvene on Sept. 5, when the bill will likely head to the Judiciary Committee.
The above story was written by Austin Ramsey, a reporter of the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer.