The farm bill died, but hemp may live on


The House just got a little bit more hemp-friendly. (Creative Commons Attribution License)

The House is still shell-shocked from the unexpected failure of the Farm Bill last week--the kind of legislation that usually passes smoothly, but in our era of dysfunction, fell victim to a poison pill. As Brad notes, the options going forward include starting over entirely, or even going back to rules written in 1949.

There are a lot of big reasons to be troubled about this. But at least one thing happened during the writing of the final bill that should be cause for celebration: The House actually accepted an amendment allowing research on industrial hemp.

Industrial hemp, defined as a particular strain of cannabis with very low levels of THC, is produced in some 30 countries for use in a wide variety of fiber and textile products. But even though nine states have legalized its cultivation, U.S. law still treats it the same as marijuana, which means the Drug Enforcement Administration could throw you in jail for growing it. So the United States has been importing more and more hemp over the years from places like China and Canada--about $11.5 million worth in 2011, according to a March report, with a "highly dedicated and growing demand base."

That didn't used to be the case. The federal government encouraged the cultivation of hemp fiber during World War II, and it only fell out of favor as anti-drug sentiment rose, before being effectively banned in 1970. Now, it's even illegal to grow the plant for research purposes without explicit permission from the DEA--which is where Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) came in.

Research is important. Without partnering with academic agronomists, it's hard for farmers to know exactly how to grow an entirely new crop in a given region, and what kinds of yields they can expect. Earlier this year, Colorado State University was considering starting a research program on industrial hemp, but feared losing federal funding because of it. Polis tried to assure the school's Board of Governors that everything would be okay, and encouraged them to seek a waiver from the DEA, which had granted one to the University of Hawaii back in 1999 (and three more since). But the Board wanted some certainty, so Polis introduced an amendment to the farm bill that would legalize cultivation in colleges and universities for research purposes.

Miraculously, despite last-minute lobbying against it from the DEA, the amendment passed by a vote of 225-200. In light of repeated failures of bills that would legalize industrial hemp production more broadly--one fizzled as an amendment to the Senate farm bill, and a House proposal has been moldering in a subcommittee since April--that's the most significant sign of progress on the federal level that hemp advocates have ever seen.

It might have a second life sooner than the rest of the House Farm Bill. Polis wants to take that sign of goodwill and tack it on to "any other bill that is germane," such as Agriculture appropriations, or on its own as a standalone bill. "When you have a Congressional majority on any issue, there are a variety of ways you can move forward," Polis says.

After that's taken care of--along with active support from the likes of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)--a law respecting states' desires to allow hemp production within their own borders looks a little less outlandish.

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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