The Slatest

Mitch McConnell Wants Hemp in a Field Near You

Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, majority leader and industrial hemp advocate.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Sen. Mitch McConnell is a friend of the farmer. The six-term Kentucky Republican proudly touts his agricultural achievements, including his two Golden Plow Awards from the American Farm Bureau. Now the newly minted majority leader is set to take on a new battle for farmers that pits him against some strongly held views among his fellow conservatives: legalizing large-scale production of industrial hemp.

Politico shines a spotlight on McConnell’s fight to remove hemp from the schedule of drugs covered by the Controlled Substances Act, which would allow farmers across the country to legally grow the versatile, profitable crop. A small pilot program of hemp cultivation in Kentucky last season was possible only when McConnell and state officials pushed back against interference from federal authorities. From Politico:

[A] shipment of 250 pounds of hemp seeds left Italy destined for Kentucky as part of a pilot project made legal by the 2014 federal farm bill. … The hemp seeds cleared customs in Chicago, but when the cargo landed at the UPS wing of Louisville International Airport, the Drug Enforcement Administration seized it, arguing that importing hemp seeds required an import permit, which could take six months to process. If farmers couldn’t get those seeds into the ground by June 1, the entire first year of the hemp pilot program would be dashed.

The DEA would have succeeded in blocking the seeds from reaching Kentucky farmers and university researchers but for the efforts of the state’s agricultural commissioner, who sued the agency and, most improbably, Mitch McConnell.

McConnell—then the Senate’s minority leader—worked furiously to free the seeds from the DEA’s clutches and continued the pro-hemp drumbeat throughout 2014, as he campaigned for reelection.

McConnell’s vocal support for legalized hemp isn’t just a talking point for the farmers back home—it’s helping to construct a rare bridge between the increasingly polarized parties in Washington. The Senate’s Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2015 is co-sponsored by McConnell, likely presidential candidate Rand Paul, and both of Oregon’s Democratic senators. Pro-hemp crusader Rep. Thomas Massie has pulled together more than 50 bipartisan co-sponsors for his House version.

Despite that support, the Industrial Hemp Farming Bill is not assured a smooth road to passage. Industrial hemp contains only a tiny amount of THC, the psychoactive element of marijuana. But the association between hemp and its cousin has been a part of anti-drug laws for decades, and attitudes among lawmakers who want to look tough on crime can be slow to change. McConnell, however, vows to fight on: “We are laying the groundwork for a new commodity market for Kentucky farmers,” he tells Politico. “And by exploring innovative ways to use industrial hemp to benefit a variety of Kentucky industries, the pilot programs could help boost our state’s economy and lead to future jobs. … I look forward to seeing industrial hemp prosper in the Commonwealth.”