Politics & Government

Hemp advocates angry at federal felon ban — but states already impose barriers

People on a tour of the Ananda Hemp facilities looked at a hemp plant during the Kentucky Hemp Days festival in Cynthiana on Saturday.
People on a tour of the Ananda Hemp facilities looked at a hemp plant during the Kentucky Hemp Days festival in Cynthiana on Saturday.

The Senate farm bill would bar people convicted of drug felonies from growing hemp — but some states already go further than that.

In some cases states bar those with drug-related misdemeanors as well.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has led the Senate effort to make it easier to grow legal hemp, represents a state that bars anyone convicted of any felony or any drug-related misdemeanor from securing a hemp license for 10 years after the conviction.

Similarly, the South Carolina Department of Agriculture will not license any hemp applicant who has been convicted of any felony or who has a drug-related misdemeanor or violation within the last 10 years.

In North Carolina, the state bars anyone with a felony conviction within the past 10 years from growing hemp. Anyone with a drug-related or controlled substance felony conviction is barred regardless of the date of conviction.

Washington state prevents anyone with a prior felony drug conviction from obtaining a license for 10 years.

Other states, chiefly Colorado, where more than half the nation’s 2017 hemp production took place, could find themselves running criminal background checks on farmers if the felony provision is passed.

The state briefly considered restricting growers with a criminal record, but rejected the approach, said Duane Sinning, the division director for plant industries at the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

“We looked at it and figured, ‘If it’s an agricultural crop, it’s an agricultural crop,’ “ Sinning said. “If it’s going to be a legitimate industry we don’t want to be fingerprinting farmers who want to find a productive crop.”

Sinning said the lack of a prohibition on those with convictions had not been an issue since the program began after passage of the 2014 farm bill. But he said the federal law could complicate the state’s program by requiring it to add staff to run background checks.

In general, courts have found that a clause in the Constitution means that federal law supersedes conflicting state law.

Critics say much is wrong with the bans.

The tough-on-drug-offenders policy reflects lingering fears about hemp’s relationship to marijuana, or what McConnell, a leading agricultural hemp advocate, calls hemp’s “illicit cousin.”

And, say the skeptics, the felony policy is at odds with Republicans’ current efforts to embrace criminal rehabilitation and job training programs for felons.

Still, fears about hemp’s relationship to illegal drug use linger.

A number of states that embraced hemp as a crop after McConnell made it possible four years ago for states to make cultivation legal have added felony provisions.

Officials in several states said law enforcement agencies asked for the measure in part because hemp remains on the federal list of controlled substances, regulated by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The 2018 Senate version of the farm bill would remove hemp from that list and give states the opportunity to become the primary regulators of hemp production.

McConnell did not include the felony provision in his original legislation, but accepted it after hearing from the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Trump administration calls for barring felons.

Overall, hemp advocates are supportive of the legislation, which they said could help make the crop a significant agricultural commodity. It was once a leading cash crop in Kentucky. The federal government during World War II had Kentucky grow hemp for the war effort, though it was forbidden elsewhere.

The hemp legalization provision is not in the House farm bill, but McConnell, who put himself on the Senate committee that will be negotiating the farm bill this summer and fall with the House, said he would “strongly advocate” to see that the legislation remains in the finished product.

He said he was “optimistic” that the legislation to legalize hemp “will be included in the final bill sent to the president for his signature. “

Yet, growers like Veronica Carpio, a hemp producer and president of Grow Hemp Colorado, said she supports the bill but is afraid she’ll be shut out. She has a past conviction for felony possession of marijuana.

“It’s crazy I’d be denied the opportunity,” Carpio said. “If it’s a crop like corn and carrots, it should be treated as such.”

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark