Hemp Advocates Hope Grassroots Effort Will Advance Bill

Hemp industry representatives set out on Capitol Hill Feb. 28 to press their case to ease federal restrictions on the cash crop, one they say has lucrative future in the U.S.

Some soaps are derived from hemp

Hemp supporters got legislation introduced in the last Congress that would have excluded industrial hemp from the definition of "marijuana," allowing for its large-scale cultivation and usage in products like fabrics, health-care items and building materials. The House and Senate versions got nearly 100 bipartisan cosponsors combined for the Industrial Hemp Farming Act, but neither advanced.

Now, the hemp industry is back, and Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, says similar legislation will be introduced in the new Congress.

"At this point the bill will be reintroduced this Congress. It hasn't played out yet, but I expect within the next few weeks or a month we'll see it come out," Steenstra told Bloomberg BNA.

And step one is to make their presence known on the Hill. A coalition of hemp processors and retailers set up shop in the Rayburn building Feb. 28 to show their wares and chat up curious lawmakers and staffers on the hemp industry and the upcoming legislation. 

Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), James Comer (R-Ky.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) hosted the group.

"The clear message of this event is there's already business happening here in the United States," Steenstra said. "This is a $600 million market for industrial hemp."

The problem, Stenstra said, is that most of that hemp is imported from places like Canada, China and Europe because of restrictions against growing it in the U.S.

"It's doesn't make a lot of sense for American farmers and American manufacturers to be left out of this," he said.

Hemp is still largely illegal to grow in the U.S., per federal law. When Congress passed the 2014 farm bill, it included a provision that allowed pilot programs for industrial hemp cultivation, but those are so far small-scale operations.

Some states have passed their own legislation easing growing restrictions. So far, the most active hemp growing states are Colorado and Kentucky, which explains Sen. Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) support of the unsuccessful 2015 bill. 

Hemp is derived from the cannabis plant

And it's the Senate Majority Leaders' support Steenstra hopes will help propel the upcoming bill past the finish line. Steenstra said there's momentum for the hemp bill to advance as a stand-alone piece of legislation, but doesn't rule out the possibility that the next farm bill could include more provisions on hemp as well.

If Congress does green-light full-scale hemp cultivation, Steenstra hopes more farmers and investors will enter into the market.

"There's a lot of people that are sitting on the sidelines, both in the farming community but also people that aren't ready to invest in processing and infrastructure that we need to be able to process the crop," he said.