Conservative Senator Wants to Legalize Hemp

hemp rope
Hemp can be used to make everything from rope (seen here) and paper to hemp milk, building materials and biofuels. JOKER/Katharina Eglau/ullstein bild/Getty Images

Hemp growers have a pretty powerful ally these days: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. He announced on March 26, 2018 that he will introduce legislation in Washington, D.C. to remove hemp from the controlled substances list and legalize it as an agricultural commodity.

"Hemp has played a foundational role in Kentucky's agricultural heritage, and I believe that it can be an important part of our future," Senator McConnell said in a press statement. Hemp can be used to produce everything from rope and paper to hemp milk, building materials and biofuels.


The Hemp Farming Act of 2018 would separate hemp from marijuana in the federal law books. They are related plants, but hemp has far lower levels of THC, the chemical in marijuana that makes users high. Before being banned under the Marijuana Tax of 1937, hemp was used to make such sexy and exciting things as rope, mulch, clothing and soap.

The government has even requested farmers plant hemp because of its many uses. According to PBS, during World War II, materials needed to produce parachutes and other military supplies were scarce, so the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched "Hemp for Victory." Farmers were given hemp seeds and encouraged to plant them; in return they were granted draft deferments to stay home and grow the crops. By 1943 American farmers had planted and harvested 375,000 acres of hemp.

So if hemp helped out during World War II, why again was it banned? Hemp and marijuana are both varieties of the cannabis sativa plant, so they're closely related. But hemp is not marijuana and marijuana is not hemp, though it can be hard to tell the plants apart. They look alike and they even smell alike. The biggest difference is their psychoactive properties: Marijuana is very high in THC (normally 5 and 30 percent) while hemp is very low (less than 0.3 percent).

But McConnell wants this new legislation to build on the federal 2014 Farm Bill, when hemp got a little window of legalization. It gave state agricultural departments the leeway to allow research and development of hemp products. In the wake of that bill, 34 states authorized research, and 19 began hemp production.

Kentucky in particular could benefit from legalizing hemp for farming. As the health hazards of tobacco have taken a toll on demand for that crop, farmers in the state are looking for a new crop replacement. And since the potential health and ecological benefits of hemp are becoming more understood, farmers are saying it would be an easy — and even lucrative — transition. One eighth-generation tobacco farmer in Kentucky told the Associated Press that after switching from tobacco to hemp, his farm has earned profits of $2,000 per acre growing hemp used in health supplements.

North Carolina is also experimenting with growing hemp at the state level. Bruce Perlowin's company, Hemp, Inc. announced on March 7, 2018 that it would grow 25,000 acres of hemp this year. "North Carolina is quickly becoming the 'Epicenter of the Industrial Hemp Industry' with companies across the state claiming their stake in the hemp and cannabis industries and vast educational opportunities," he said in a press statement.

The main market for hemp in North Carolina is cannabinoids, or CBD. This chemical is taken from the top of the plant and processed into capsules that can be used to treat the symptoms of many diseases. Perlowin also plans to open an 85,000-square-foot facility dedicated to hemp-derived CBD products.