Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has, perhaps unexpectedly to those who find themselves agreeing with only this one position of his, been a major force for legalizing industrial hemp. Industrial hemp differs from marijuana in that it’s bred specifically to have extremely low concentrations of THC, the primary psychoactive chemical in marijuana; smoke industrial hemp all you want, it’ll just give you sore lungs.
McConnell has long been a proponent of industrial hemp; his home state, Kentucky, has a long history with the crop. He told reporters last month that he “guarantees” that the 2018 Farm Bill will include a provision making industrial hemp legal, nationwide. (For more on that debate and why anyone bothers to oppose it, check out our previous article on the subject.) But the current version of the Farm Bill includes a stipulation to broad legalization: it bars anyone with a drug felony from participating in any way in hemp cultivation.
On its face, that ban is merely strange; hemp is not a psychoactive drug, and will soon be legally considered as such. Those with felony drug charges in their pasts are obviously not barred from, say, growing corn or soy or tomatoes, and yet the bill would somehow simultaneously insist that hemp is a crop just like these, and also a crop completely unlike these.
The more sinister side of this ban is, as noted by both outlets like Quartz and representatives of the hemp industry itself, that drug prosecution in the US is statistically biased against people of color. From the Drug Policy Alliance: “Research shows that prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for black people as for white people charged with the same offense.” People of color are far more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, further leading to higher incarceration rates even if, as this 2009 study indicated, the actual arrest rates are about the same. More stops means more arrests.
From an agricultural side of things, which obviously is where we come in, the ban is wildly counterproductive. This is a substantial segment of the population that is now banned from an industry that’s going to be growing quickly, and, yes, there are going to be some people who actually have expertise in growing other strains of cannabis who can’t bring that expertise to a newly legal field. Legalized industrial hemp is going to be a huge agricultural segment; CBD, a compound that’s synthesized from industrial hemp, is expected to be a billion dollar industry by 2020, all perfectly within the boundaries of the law.
This, along with figuring out how (or if) to overturn past convictions, is part of the growing pains this country’s legal system will have to cope with over the next decade as the prohibition on cannabis lessens. In the meantime, let people get jobs.