Politics

Why Republicans Want to Legalize Marijuana's Cousin

Marijuana legalization is still a contentious issue in Congress that few Republicans have been willing to get behind.

But when it comes to hemp — a close relative in the cannabis family — a bipartisan effort to deregulate the plant is moving forward.

hemp

Freshman U.S. Rep. James Comer, a Kentucky Republican, formed a bipartisan coalition to push through legislation that made the state the second-largest producer of industrial hemp in the U.S.

He told C-SPAN last week that the first bill he plans to introduce will seek to federally deregulate hemp, and he summed up the reason the issue has appeal across the aisle:

"Liberals liked it because it's a sustainable crop," Comer said. "Conservatives liked it because this is an example of the government standing in the way of the private sector."

Hemp is a fibrous plant that can be used to create thousands of products and is heralded as an environmentally friendly alternative to paper, cotton, plastic, and oil resources.

It's also a lucrative crop: Canadian farmers make about $300 in profit per acre.

In the U.S., however, hemp is strictly prohibited, assigned to the same drug class as marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act. That's in spite of the fact that hemp contains little to no THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

Congress did pass an amendment to the 2014 Farm Bill that permits research institutions to grow hemp. But lawmakers are holding out for full deregulation.

In 2015, a Senate bill that included Democratic and Republican co-sponors such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and GOP Sen. Rand Paul (both Kentucky representatives) was introduced twice with no movement. Comer hopes to get the ball rolling in 2017.

hemp

What's the holdup?

Hemp and marijuana look alike. And if you can't tell which of the cannabis cousins are growing in a field, that poses a problem for law enforcement officials.

The similarities have also led to some confusion among marijuana opponents, who are sometimes misinformed about the physical and chemical differences.

Before passing Kentucky's industrial hemp law, Comer arranged town hall meetings and met with constituents to address their concerns and educate them about the crop. He used an interesting simile to explain:

"Hemp and marijuana are like broccoli and cauliflower. They’re two different plants in the same plant family. Broccoli and cauliflower have similarities if you can visualize that. But they’re different. They’re different colors; they taste different. Industrial hemp is an agriculture crop, and it should be viewed that way just like corn or soybeans."