There’s not much that the U.S. Senate’s top Republican and top Democrat agree on. But one of the few things that fosters bipartisan cooperation in Washington, D.C. these days is cannabis.
On Friday, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) announced that he’s signing on as a cosponsor of a hemp legalization bill introduced last month by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
“It’s a crock,” Schumer said, referring to current federal law. “It makes no sense that the DEA is the primary regulator, and that they stop farmers and investors from growing hemp. Why are we buying hemp from other countries, when we have hundreds of acres that could be grown right here in our backyard?”
Hemp products like clothing and foods are legal to buy and sell in the U.S., but its cultivation is prohibited, meaning that those consumer goods must be made from imported crops.
McConnell’s legislation, which already has 10 other senators signed on, would remove hemp from the definition of marijuana, its psychoactive cousin, under the Controlled Substances Act.
Advocates are hopeful that the teaming up of the usually quarreling party leaders on hemp bodes well for further cannabis reforms.
“In a world where Senators McConnell and Schumer agree on almost nothing, having both Senate party leaders sponsoring legislation to end the federal prohibition of hemp only further reinforces the need for bipartisan legislation to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act entirely,” Justin Strekal, political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said in an interview.
In reality, industrial hemp is an oyster with a pearl of opportunities that could mean millions in economic revenue while also helping to support new local jobs, like NY's Sullivan, Orange and Ulster counties.
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) May 5, 2018
Industrial Hemp can be used to make everything from paper, to clothing, to plastics which is why it so important we fix this outdated law as soon as possible. All good reasons why I'm cosponsoring tr bipartisan Hemp Farming Act of 2018.
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) May 5, 2018
McConnell has already announced plans to attach the language of his standalone hemp legislation to the larger Farm Bill, which sets agriculture and food policy for the nation. That proposal is expected to move through Congress this month.
“As the majority leader, I’m in charge of what we schedule, and we’re going to be scheduling the Farm Bill very soon after it comes out of the Agriculture Committee, and I expect that to happen in May,” he said in a recent interview.
McConnell’s hemp bill would remove restrictions on banking access, water rights and other roadblocks that hemp farmers and processors currently face. The U.S. Department of Agriculture would receive oversight plans from states, and then state departments of agriculture would regulate local production. The bill would also make USDA research funding available to farmers, and hemp plants would be eligible for crop insurance.
McConnell has often touted the economic benefits that hemp cultivation can bring to rural areas, including in his home state of Kentucky.
“We all are so optimistic that industrial hemp can become sometime in the future what tobacco was in Kentucky’s past,” he said when first announcing the bill.
McConnell already successfully inserted more limited hemp language to the last version of the Farm Bill, enacted in 2014, which shields state industrial hemp research programs from federal interference but does not entirely legalize the crop in the way the new proposal would.
Schumer, for his part, announced last month that he supports legalizing marijuana and would soon be introducing a bill to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act altogether. The move took many advocates by surprise, because the top Senate Democrat has long been a supporter of the war on drugs.
“The legislation is long overdue,” he said when announcing his new position. “I’ve seen too many people’s lives ruined because they had small amounts of marijuana and served time in jail much too long.”
McConnell hasn’t yet publicly commented about Schumer’s pending broader marijuana legislation, which hasn’t yet been formally introduced, but the cannabis cooperation behind the hemp bill could signal the start of more robust bipartisan efforts to further scale back federal prohibition.
Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), for example, are expected to introduce legislation this month to amend federal law so that states can implement their own marijuana laws without interference, a move that President Trump agreed to support last month.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.