Politics & Government

Convicted of a drug offense? You might not be able to grow hemp

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, inspected a piece of hemp taken from a bale at a processing plant in Louisville on Thursday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, inspected a piece of hemp taken from a bale at a processing plant in Louisville on Thursday. AP

Got a felony drug conviction on your record? Don’t look at cultivating hemp as a career opportunity.

The Senate farm bill would make it easier for farmers across the country to grow hemp — but it also bars from participation anyone with a state or federal felony drug conviction.

The felony provision was included in an amendment submitted by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a major champion of expanding industrial hemp.

The Kentucky Republican’s office did not answer questions about the provision. But a Democratic aide and hemp advocates said it was their understanding that McConnell added the provision at the request of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and the Department of Justice.

The Department of Justice declined to comment. Grassley said Tuesday he had not been in talks about the provision, but it was possible that his staff had negotiations with McConnell’s office. His office did not return requests for information.

A spokesman for McConnell said the majority leader’s “top priority” is passage of the hemp legislation. After the bill was introduced, the senator received input from the Judiciary Committee, the administration, and other parties which was incorporated into the McConnell amendment.

“This is one of those changes incorporated to help address some of the questions and feedback we received,” said McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer.

Hemp advocates, growers and several members of Congress are opposed to barring convicted felons and hope to strike the language from the legislation when House and Senate negotiators meet to hammer out differences between the two bills.

Pro-hemp negotiators also will be trying to get the hemp provision into the finished product. At McConnell’s request the House legislation does not include a hemp provision. The Senate has not yet named its farm bill negotiators. In the House, they include Rep. James Comer, R-Kentucky, a former state agriculture commissioner who embraced the hemp industry in his first statewide race.

The hemp legislation McConnell introduced this spring did not include the felony provision. One of the hemp legislation’s co-sponsor’s, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said he wants hemp treated like every other agricultural crop.

“Restricting hemp cultivation makes as much sense as restricting who can grow corn,” Wyden said.

Hemp advocates said the measure discriminates against the crop.

“It bars a whole lot of good people from being able to participate in a legitimate industry,” said Erica McBride, the executive director of the National Hemp Association, who also grows about 130 acres of hemp in Pennsylvania. “It fosters the wrong idea that hemp is bad or a drug, that it’s not an agricultural crop like any other.”

She noted that growers are already closely monitored. They must agree to give their GPS coordinates to law enforcement and are subject to routine testing to make sure the hemp does not exceed the legal concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient found in cannabis.

The federal law would cap concentration at not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis. By contrast, marijuana, which McConnell calls hemp’s “illicit cousin” — has a THC level of 5 to 10 percent or more.

The ban could disproportionately hurt minorities, with studies finding that black Americans are arrested for drug crimes at higher rates than whites.

“It’s unnecessary and improper and its discriminatory,” said Eric Steenstra, president and co-founder of Vote Hemp, a nonprofit advocacy group that backs hemp farming.

The felony provision measure could also bar some people convicted solely of drug possession. Several states, including California, have lowered some drug possession crimes from felonies to misdemeanors in recent years. But other states, including Kentucky, consider possession of controlled substances a felony.

Grassley last month opposed the hemp measure in the judiciary committee, saying he would support the legalization of industrial hemp, but had concerns about CBD oil, a compound from the cannabis plant that is showing up in health food stores and beauty magazines.

He said at a committee meeting at the time he was afraid any “snake oil salesman” would be able to peddle CBD oil as a cure-all.

“Hemp can be used for paper and clothing and rope, stuff like that,” he told the Herald-Leader in an interview.. “But when you’re making medicine out of it that isn’t going to be regulated, that’s pretty serious as far as I’m concerned.”

The hemp provision in the farm bill, a detailed measure spelling out federal agriculture policy, would remove hemp from the federal list of controlled substances, giving each state the ability to allow farmers to grow it legally.

Thanks to a provision that McConnell included in the 2014 farm bill, many states, including Kentucky, now allow growing hemp on an experimental basis, but supporters say its continuing presence on the list of controlled substances creates confusion and restricts farmers’ and processors’ access to lines of credit, small business loans and crop insurance.

McConnell has been an advocate for the crop to help Kentucky farmers reeling from the slump in the tobacco market.

“Hemp could end up in your car’s dashboard, it could end up in your food, it could end up in your medicine,” McConnell has said.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark