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Senate's McConnell, Paul join push to legalize hemp farming

Shop for hemp

Hempzels pretzels and mustard, Natalie's Choice fruit and hemp jams, and hemp-seed butter are available at the East End Food Co-Op, 7516 Meade St., Pittsburgh

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Sunday, March 24, 2013, 10:33 p.m.
 

Shawn House doesn't need a map to navigate the miles of rolling hills dotted with barns and skyscraping silos in bucolic Lancaster County.

He knows the farms, the farmers and the natural food stores by heart from more than a decade of delivering his hemp-enriched foods and preaching about the need to let U.S. farmers grow hemp, which produces annual retail sales of $50 million to $300 million.

All that stands in House's way is a 1970 federal law that makes it illegal to grow hemp — a close cousin of marijuana — without a difficult-to-obtain government permit.

That could change if a bill introduced by two influential conservative senators last month gains congressional approval.

Citing the United States as the biggest importer of industrial hemp for products such as rope, blue jeans, car seats, paper, cosmetics and foods, Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul of Kentucky sponsored the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013.

Paul, who attended a state hearing on the issue wearing a white dress shirt made of hemp, was critical of manufacturers being forced to import hemp.

“We're exporting our profits,” he said. “It's a crop that's legal everywhere in the world except in the U.S. Everyone has figured it out except us.”

Lawmakers in eight states, including neighboring West Virginia, are poised to allow farmers to begin growing hemp if federal law changes. They've passed laws setting up a framework for selling it.

Legislators in 15 other states introduced similar legislation this year, said Tom Murphy of Vote Hemp, a national advocacy group.

Pennsylvania state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery County, introduced a bill last month that would legalize all forms of cannabis. Intended to decriminalize marijuana, the bill would legalize growing industrial hemp, he said.

“Those states with laws and licensure in place ... will have the ability to get hemp in the ground first,” Murphy said. “They'll get the research and development money, the grants to develop seed varieties.”

Untapped potential

Not all supporters of hemp production favor legalizing the use of marijuana, but backers of both products are wrangling over how the crops can be legally grown.

Growing marijuana and hemp are prohibited under the federal 1970 Controlled Substances Act, crafted in the late 1960s to address concerns about a burgeoning drug culture in the nation. That law prohibits the use of marijuana.

In Colorado and Washington, where voters recently approved referendums legalizing the use of marijuana, those who want to grow the drug are waiting to see whether the Department of Justice sues to block any state law regarding the use or cultivation of marijuana.

Hemp supporters say that for them, it's all about manufacturers being able to buy from U.S. farmers instead of importing hemp from places such as Canada, where it's been grown for 15 years.

In 2010, manufacturers imported about $11 million in hemp products, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center.

The center cites huge growth potential, as automakers around the world begin switching to hemp-based plastics because they are more durable and clothing manufacturers answer consumers' calls for more natural materials.

“I've been banging this drum for years,” said House, owner of Lancaster Trading House, which sells more than a dozen hemp foods ranging from pretzels to hemp-seed mustard.

House said hemp unfairly was lumped in with marijuana as a drug when, for decades, it was a legal, successful agricultural crop.

Hemp contains less than 1 percent THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient that averages 10 percent potency in marijuana. Consuming hemp foods or even smoking hemp won't get users high.

Image an issue

Hemp historian Les Stark, of Ephrata in Lancaster County, said the hemp movement gained momentum more than a decade ago when farm bureaus, the Pennsylvania State Grange and the Pennsylvania Farmers Union passed resolutions supporting hemp. After 9/11, attention shifted to terrorism and homeland security issues, he said.

“Now we have this momentum going again,” Stark said.

Murphy said “it really does send a message that somebody of (McConnell's) stature, who had law enforcement concerns and hesitations before ... that his objections have been overcome.”

Still, the movement draws staunch opposition from law enforcement groups who say it would make enforcing drug laws more difficult because hemp plants look similar to marijuana. It is nearly impossible to tell the plants apart, except in laboratory analysis, said Maria Finn, a spokeswoman for state police.

“It would interfere in our enforcement/eradication efforts and certainly cause confusion,” Finn said. “That would pose a problem for law enforcement as it pertains to detection and eradication efforts.”

Former CIA director R. James Woolsey jumped on supporters' side. During a recent hearing in Kentucky, he equated the possibility of getting high on hemp to that of “getting drunk on O'Doul's (non-alcoholic beer).”

A spokesman for the state attorney general said the office has no position on industrial hemp.

Some lawmakers and supporters have carefully distanced themselves from ongoing campaigns to legalize marijuana, saying the issues don't need to be connected.

‘‘I just kept it to the science,” said former West Virginia legislator Karen Facemyer, who sponsored that state's bill to permit hemp farming.

She said linking her campaign to full legalization of marijuana would have given it “a whole different meaning.”

The image problem probably is the biggest barrier, said Steve Groff, a hemp supporter who owns a 225-acre corn, soybean and wheat farm in southwestern Lancaster County. Groff said he does not want marijuana legalized.

He said hemp lends itself to lower-quality soil, so mountainous areas east of Pittsburgh where the ground isn't as fertile could benefit from the crop.

“Certainly here in the Mid-Atlantic region, it's well adapted and would do quite well,” said Jeff Graybill of the Penn State Cooperative Extension in Lancaster County.

“We are importing a crop that U.S. farmers could be profitably growing right here at home, if not for government rules prohibiting it,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, a co-sponsor of the federal bill. “I am sure that most senators would say that what I am talking about is the poster child for dumb regulation.”

Kari Andren is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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