The massive farm bill that helps determine what farmers grow and Americans eat is poised to get some major momentum thanks to a not-yet-legal crop: Hemp.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has pushed hard to make hemp a legal product in the United States, is asking for his hemp legalization bill to be included in the sweeping farm bill. That would help give the farm bill, whose prospects have been considered iffy, more support in the Senate.
"We're optimistic it could be very significant for Kentucky agriculture," McConnell said of hemp Thursday in an interview with WKDZ, a Kentucky radio station. "First we have to make it legal and that's what we intend to do in this year's farm bill."
The farm bill still has several hurdles. It has yet to make it out of the House or be considered by the Senate Agricultural Committee, but McConnell said he's optimistic it will get moving next month.
"As 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," McConnell said.
The House Agriculture Committee approved its version of the farm bill last week, and the full House is expected to consider the measure in mid-May. That version does not contain the hemp provision.
House Committee chairman Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said he would not oppose the hemp measure, as long as it wouldn't cause him to lose votes.
"If it loses more votes than it gets, my recommendation would be to drop it," Conaway said. Critics worry about hemp’s relationship to marijuana. They’re concerned that legalizing hemp, even on a limited basis, could provide momentum to marijuana legalization supporters, who want to scrap the federal ban against pot.
House Republicans plan to meet Friday with the farm bill on the agenda, and Rep. James Comer, R-Ky, a former Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner who has embraced industrial hemp, said he will offer a similar amendment to McConnell on the House bill.
"My job now is to try to educate as many Republicans as possible. If people know the difference between hemp and marijuana we will be fine," Comer said, noting that he's also talked to Democrats. Democrats are said to be considering voting against every amendment in protest of the bill, which would make big changes in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
The Senate farm bill was thought to be in some jeopardy, due largely to concerns about the SNAP provisions.
With McConnell behind a farm bill, though, the legislation's chances improve. The Senate bill is unlikely to contain such tough SNAP changes, meaning that if the farm bills pass each chamber, Senate and House negotiators would craft a final version.
McConnell's legislation would remove hemp from the federal list of controlled substances, giving farmers across the country the ability to grow it legally. Many states, including Kentucky, now allow it on an experimental basis, but supporters say hemp's continuing presence on the list of controlled substances creates confusion and restricts farmers and processors' access to banking and crop insurance.
The move comes as states increasingly tout hemp as a boost to the economy, with products made with CBD oil, a compound from the cannabis plant, showing up in posh department stores and beauty magazines. 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.
McConnell has been an advocate for the crop to help Kentucky farmers reeling from the slump in the tobacco market.
In 2014, McConnell successfully tucked a provision into that year's farm bill to allow 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.
McConnell said in the radio interview he didn't know if hemp would ever be as productive for Kentucky as tobacco, but said it was promising.
"Hemp could end up in your car's dashboard, it could end up in your food, it could end up in your medicine," McConnell said.
Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark