Mitch McConnell — yes, that Mitch McConnell — moves to legalize hemp across the country

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., joined from left by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, speaks to reporters following a closed-door strategy session on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., joined from left by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, speaks to reporters following a closed-door strategy session on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday. AP

Embracing the hemp industry was a savvy political move for Kentucky Rep. James Comer, the only Republican to win statewide in 2011 during an otherwise tough year for his party.

The political message got through. Now taking up the charge to make it easier — and completely legal — for U.S. farmers to grow and market hemp products, including trendy cannabidiol or CBD oil: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

McConnell, R-Ky., who pledges to give the legalization effort “everything we've got," is expediting the legislation and lining up key support from across the aisle as backers seek to convince otherwise tough-on-drugs Republicans to come along.

“This has become one of his priorities,” Comer, the former Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner turned congressman said of McConnell.

McConnell’s support could help sway the “handful of members who still cringe when I come up to talk to them about hemp,” Comer said.

McConnell took the conservative approach this week on the Senate floor, arguing that Kentucky farmers reeling from the slump in the tobacco market, have wanted to grow industrial hemp, but that the federal government has “stood in the way.”

He noted that his legislation, which would remove hemp from the list of controlled substances, would ensure that hemp is distinguished from what he called its “illicit cousin.”

McConnell also provided a bit of an entrepreneurial pitch, noting that hemp fiber is being used in home insulation and that “some breweries in Kentucky have even crafted hemp-infused beer.”

To speed things along, McConnell invoked the Senate’s “Rule 14” for his legislation, allowing it to be brought directly to the Senate floor, without traditional committee consideration. A spokesman for McConnell said the leader invokes the rule several times a week and has previously used it for his own legislation.

McConnell last June used the same maneuver to expedite the Republican health care bill, sparking complaints from senators that the testimony on legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act was never heard in a committee. The bill eventually failed.

Rule 14 does not preclude committees from reviewing the legislation, said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart. But the bill, which would remove hemp from the list of controlled substances, would have presumably been heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chairman Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has opposed earlier efforts, citing concerns about legalization of marijuana.

Grassley said Wednesday he was unfamiliar with McConnell’s effort.

Backers say McConnell, who has long served on the Senate’s Agriculture Committee and has several times won the Kentucky Farm Bureau’s “Golden Plow” award, has been impressed with the state’s hemp initiatives, which he helped launch in 2014.

He’s also cognizant of hemp’s history in Kentucky. It was once a leading cash crop and the federal government during World War II had Kentucky grow hemp for the war effort, though it was forbidden elsewhere.

Critics worry about hemp’s relationship to marijuana. They’re concerned that legalizing hemp, even on a limited basis, could give more momentum to pro-marijuana supporters, who want to scrap the federal ban against pot. Both are classified as controlled substances, banned by Congress for decades.

Hemp is the non-intoxicating sister plant of marijuana. Both come from the same species, Cannabis sativa, but hemp has only a trace of THC, the chemical that produces a high. Hemp has a myriad of uses, its supporters say, from clothing to construction materials. Auto manufacturers in Kentucky are eager to copy their German counterparts and use hemp fiber in car dashboards and door panels.

“McConnell coming out is a game changer,” Comer said. “Not only is he the most powerful person in Congress, he’s very cautious. So knowing that he supports it, you do a little research and you find out it’s been a real success story in Kentucky and that makes you confident.”

Supporters say the issue hits a sweet spot between Democrats who support relaxed marijuana laws and conservatives who see hemp’s inclusion on the federal list of controlled substances as government interference. It is legal to grow in other countries, including Canada, and many hemp products in the U.S. contain hemp grown elsewhere.

States are increasingly looking to get involved: Oklahoma this week became the latest state to allow farmers to grow hemp, with lawmakers touting it as a boost to the economy. The move comes as products made with CBD oil, a compound from the cannabis plant, are showing up in posh department stores and beauty magazines.

McConnell has not always been as supportive. Eric Steenstra, president and co-founder of Vote Hemp, a nonprofit advocacy group that backs hemp farming, said Comer’s election in 2011 caught the leader’s interest.

Comer, a former farmer, campaigned on legalizing the crop and won by double digits even as the top of the Republican ticket, gubernatorial candidate David Williams lost to incumbent Democrat Steve Beshear by 20 points. Once in office, Comer oversaw legislation to legalize some industrial hemp in the state.

“McConnell took note of that,” Steenstra said. His fellow Kentucky senator, Rand Paul, R-Ky., had long supported the effort. His father, former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, sponsored one of the first hemp legalization bills.

McConnell “came to see there was something to it, something that was good for Kentucky farmers,” Steenstra said.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a hardline against marijuana legalization, and McConnell has said that he plans to talk with the administration about the bill. His office did not comment on the senator’s strategy for this story.

In 2014, McConnell successfully tucked a provision into the farm bill that allowed state departments of agriculture, as well as colleges and universities, to grow hemp for academic, research and marketing purposes in states that voted to make cultivation legal.

Backers say the that the plant’s continuing presence on the list of controlled substances creates confusion and restricts farmers and processors’ access to banking and crop insurance. Comer in 2014 took the Drug Enforcement Administration to court after it seized 250 pounds of hemp seeds en route to the University of Kentucky from Italy. Among those helping to settle the case: McConnell, who met with the DEA administrator to make Kentucky’s case.

“I again expressed my frustration that the DEA is using its finite resources to stymie plainly lawful hemp pilot projects at the very time Kentucky is facing growing threats from heroin addiction and other drug abuse," McConnell said at the time.

Under McConnell’s plan, states would submit plans to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. States would regulate local production. The plan would also make USDA research funding available to farmers, and hemp would be eligible for crop insurance.

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, who appeared with McConnell in Frankfort to announce the majority leader’s support, noted McConnell once sat at Kentucky legend Henry Clay’s desk in the Senate — and that Clay was one of the largest hemp growers in the U.S. when he served in the Senate.

“There’s a misperception of what the crop is and what it is not,” Quarles said. “I imagine Sen. McConnell will greatly help our education efforts.”

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark