Farm bill negotiators in Congress have struggled to resolve differences over work requirements for food stamp recipients, but the Senate's top Republican guarantees the final version will include legalization of hemp. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday that completing work on a new farm bill looms as one of his top priorities when Congress reconvenes for a lame-duck session.
Work to reauthorize key farm programs has slowed over work requirements for food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
While negotiators have wrangled over that issue, one provision certain to be in the final farm bill is one to fully legalize hemp, McConnell said. The Kentucky Republican is a key negotiator in the House-Senate conference committee crafting the final bill.
"It will be in there, I guarantee you that," he told reporters in Kentucky.
The versatile crop is making a comeback in Kentucky and elsewhere.
McConnell has put his considerable clout behind legalizing hemp as an agricultural commodity. He has led the effort to remove hemp from the controlled substances list that currently associates the crop with its cousin — marijuana.
Hemp and marijuana are the same species, but hemp has a negligible amount of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.
McConnell said his home state has a jump on reviving hemp production and processing.
Kentucky farmers grew thousands of acres of hemp this year, and dozens of Kentucky processors are turning the raw product into a multitude of products.
"It's interesting to think about what it could be," McConnell said.
"I don't want to overstate this — I don't know whether it's going to be the next tobacco or not, but I do think it has a lot of potential," he added.
Kentucky agriculture has diversified since tobacco production went into deep decline, and farmers continue to look for alternative crops.
McConnell's proposal to legalize hemp was included in the Senate's version of the farm bill but not in the House version.
The crop was historically used for rope but has many other uses, including clothing and mulch from the fiber; hemp milk and cooking oil from the seeds; and soap and lotions. Other uses include building materials, animal bedding and biofuels.
McConnell said his goal is to have hemp production only "lightly" regulated by the federal agriculture department. Growers would contact officials in their states so a list could be kept in case law enforcement wants to make sure what's planted is hemp and not marijuana, he said.
Hemp started its comeback with the 2014 federal farm bill. McConnell helped push for a provision that allows states to pursue research and development. That allowed the crop to be grown on an experimental basis in Kentucky and other states.