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Congress is about to legalize cannabis. Just not the kind that gets you high.

By Caitlin Dewey

August 10

Lawmakers are poised to fully legalize hemp after a decades-long campaign, setting the stage for the resurgence of a once-common crop that disappeared during the war on drugs.

The legalization provision, championed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and included in the Senate’s farm bill, would officially classify hemp as an agricultural commodity and remove it from the federal controlled substances list. Lawmakers are also expected to advance the measure when they meet next month to draft the final, bicameral version of the legislation.

Hemp landed on the list because it is, like marijuana, a form of the cannabis plant. But growers and farm-state politicians argue the two have been unfairly lumped together, depriving farmers of what could one day become a major commodity crop.

In Kentucky, in particular, hemp has been touted as a panacea for cratering tobacco sales and falling crop prices. Growers there have pinned their hopes for future profits on it. But as legalization looks ever more inevitable, the question now is whether industrial hemp can deliver on decades of hype and promises.

Advocates say the industry is poised for an explosion, particularly as new supply chains develop and researchers discover additional uses for cannabidiol oil, which can be derived from hemp. There are also concerns, however, that the industry may grow too quickly, forcing the price of hemp down to unsustainable levels before there’s adequate demand for it.

“There’s no question that industrial hemp is economically viable,” said Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), an architect of the legalization plan. “I get a call from a farmer every other day. More and more farmers want to grow it.”

The saga of American hemp is essentially one of mistaken identity, farmers say. The tall, weedy plant is botanically the same species as marijuana, but it contains only trace amounts of the psychoactive compound THC that causes a high in smokers.

Hemp has a wide range of other uses, however. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew it, chiefly for use in cloth, ropes, sails and nets. The Agriculture Department also urged “patriotic farmers” to plant it during World War II for use in naval towlines, parachute webbing and other products.

But in the wake of World War II, when demand slackened, hemp began to fall out of vogue. In 1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, which effectively made it illegal to grow hemp and marijuana.

Today, the roughly $688 million of hemp goods sold in the United States each year -- products such as teas, T-shirts, car parts and supplements -- are made largely with materials imported from Canada, where industrial hemp has been legal to grow since 1998. The current Senate legislation seeks to give U.S. farmers a piece of that market by removing hemp from the controlled substances list and reclassifying it as an agricultural commodity. Farmers will still have to meet certain requirements to purchase and grow hemp seeds.

“The ideal scenario is one in which farmers can grow this like any other crop,” said Eric Steenstra, the president of the advocacy group Vote Hemp. Many lawmakers now understand, Steenstra added, that hemp has a long history in U.S. farming -- and that hemp and marijuana are effectively different plants.

Congress has attempted to revive U.S. hemp before, though farmers and advocates say earlier efforts did not go far enough. The 2014 farm bill opened the door for some growers to plant the crop as part of experimental, state-run pilot programs. Under those pilots, farmers have already planted 25,000 acres of hemp in 19 states, from Kentucky to Oregon.

But growers say a true commercial industry remains impossible as long as hemp is classified as a controlled substance. That’s because farmers face stringent regulations when importing seeds, and many banks won’t loan to farms or processing facilities that work with hemp. The lack of capital has slowed the development of the supply chains and markets that will ultimately make hemp a viable crop.

“There are a lot of people who want to invest in hemp,” said Comer, the Kentucky Republican. “There would be more if it weren’t a controlled substance.”