Legal cultivation of hemp—a cousin of marijuana used to make everything from fabrics to pharmaceuticals—is closer to becoming reality as a result of a provision tucked into the farm bill that passed the House last week.
Federal law effectively prohibits the cultivation of hemp, making no distinction between that plant and marijuana, which is much more potent. However, nine states have passed laws legalizing industrial hemp farming, including California, Kentucky and Vermont, according to Vote Hemp, a not-for-profit advocacy group.
If the legislation becomes law, universities and agriculture departments in those states would be able to grow it for research purposes, with the hope that commercial production could be on the horizon. Permits to grow hemp for research purposes are technically available now, though they are extremely difficult to get.
“We are laying the groundwork for a new commodity market for Kentucky farmers,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), who helped craft the language in the farm bill, said in a statement. Farmers there have struggled to find a replacement for tobacco, which is being grown less.
The farm legislation, which drew bipartisan backing, has now moved to the Senate, where it is expected to pass.
Proponents hailed the House vote as an important step toward legalizing commercial farming of hemp, which like marijuana is effectively barred under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. In marijuana, the concentration of the psychoactive chemical tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is 10% on average, and sometimes much more. Industrial hemp, on the other hand, can’t have more than 0.3% THC under the farm-bill provision.
Separate bills with bipartisan support in the House and Senate would exclude industrial hemp from the 1970 law and allow states to regulate its cultivation. Hemp advocates hope passage of the farm bill will boost those measures’ chances.
Supporters say full legalization could create a vibrant new industry. Despite curbs on hemp cultivation, hemp-based products such as carpeting and cosmetics can be imported legally, from countries including Canada, the U.K. and China. Retail sales of such goods reached nearly $500 million in 2012, according to the Hemp Industries Association.
But to build up a U.S. industry would require research, said Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp. Though farmers cultivated it legally for much of U.S. history—before it was effectively banned under the 1970 law—production petered out in the late 1950s. That means today’s farmers must start from scratch to figure out which varieties grow best in different climates, and when to plant and harvest the crop, Mr. Steenstra said.
Not everyone is thrilled at the prospect of hemp farms popping up. Some law-enforcement groups say the crop looks similar to marijuana and could interfere with drug-interdiction efforts.
Still, some states appear poised to act. Oregon, which passed a law permitting hemp cultivation in 2009, is already working on setting up rules to regulate production, said Bruce Pokarney, director of communications at the state Department of Agriculture.
In Kentucky, which passed a similar measure last year, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer has made hemp a signature issue. If the farm bill passes, he said, the state plans to license farmers to grow hemp this year. He said he also has been in talks with companies that could process hemp seeds and fiber.
One business group he said he is meeting with this week is interested in using hemp hurd, a material in the center of the stalk, to make bedding for animals ranging from birds to livestock. That could be a big seller in the state’s large equine industry, he said.
“It will take several years to develop,” Mr. Comer said. But “hopefully, Kentucky is positioned to be the leader in this emerging industry.”
Write to Arian Campo-Flores at [email protected]