There are certainly notable exceptions, but the Republican party isn’t generally known for holding a particularly hospitable stance on cannabis decriminalization. Then again, it appears the rising tide of mainstream cultural acceptance and support for decriminalizing cannabis has raised all ships. As support for cannabis has grown across a broad spectrum of Americans, so too has the willingness of previously prohibitionist lawmakers to explore and sometimes embrace decriminalization policies.
This week, the Republican politician in question is the Senate majority leader: Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), who has announced he will introduce a new bill that would eliminate the federal prohibition on cultivating industrial hemp — leaving it up to individual states to decide how to regulate it — and create federal subsidies for hemp farmers and allow hemp researchers to apply for grant funding from the Department of Agriculture.
Yes, that Mitch McConnell.
To be fair, as with most Republicans who “cross the aisle” on the issue of cannabis, McConnell has a geographical (and therefore electoral) stake in the hemp industry. His home state of Kentucky was once a major hemp producer for industrial products like rope, and now Kentucky hemp farmers are operating under a partial thaw of federal prohibition towards hemp, passed in the 2014 Farm Bill.
The Farm Bill amendment allowed for individual states to create hemp research and development projects and authorize farmers to supply those projects. As a result, 34 states green-lit research projects and there was a pronounced expansion of legal hemp cultivation: In 2015, the entire U.S. hemp industry planted 3,933 acres nationwide, most of it produced in one of four states. By 2016, the number of states producing hemp had grown to 19 and the national hemp acreage went up by almost 150% to 9,649. That acreage number once again more than doubled, with 25,541 acres planted by 2017, according to Vote Hemp.
And one of the top three producers of hemp in each of those years? Kentucky, meaning McConnell’s constituency has an economic interest in legal hemp — which means he has an electoral interest in it. That 2014 Farm Bill amendment was passed in large part due to McConnell’s support and advocacy, and stake and shareholders in his state’s booming hemp industry are already singing his praises over this latest show of support for legal hemp.
“This is a huge development for the hemp industry,” Steenstra said. “Sen. McConnell’s support is critical to helping us move hemp from research and pilot programs to full commercial production.”
This comes at a time when consumer interest in hemp products is exploding, motivating growth in the hemp cultivation and processing industries. According to recent industry data, that growth has been particularly pronounced in legacy hemp cultivation states like Kentucky, one of the three top hemp production states.
This growth has seen the embrace of sometimes controversial CBD-only products extracted from industrial hemp, but also “lifestyle products,” like beverages and cosmetic products containing small amounts of hemp seed oil and other hemp extracts. As the stigma surrounding cannabis, psychoactive and otherwise, continues to fade, these types of products have renewed appeal and acceptance.
In statements to the press, McConnell acknowledged the major step in public understanding of the difference between medicinal or adult use cannabis and industrial hemp since 2014.
“I think we’ve worked our way through the education process of making sure everybody understands this is really a different plant,” the Republican leader said.
McConnell also told reporters that, while he does believe most people understand the difference between cannabis and hemp, he plans to speak directly with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has shown a pronounced distaste for any decriminalization activity around federally prohibited substances.
It remains to be seen if the bill will pass, but it’s existence is just one more sign of the shifting sands of legislative momentum still building behind cannabis decriminalization.