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Evil Weed or Good Cash Crop?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Hemp is not marijuana. 

And yet it is.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced he will introduce legislation to legalize industrial hemp.

He is not concerning himself with marijuana, which is what we call the plant Cannabis sativa when cultivated for its Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content, the principal chemical in the plant that makes it ideal for “recreational” (and other) uses. Industrial hemp is Cannabis sativa, too, just with minuscule THC. 

Actually, he insists that “hemp” and “marijuana” are more than merely distinct: “I think we’ve worked our way through the education process of making sure everybody understands this is really a different plant,” he said.

Well, I guess that is one way to sell a bill. But it is not quite believable. While “hemp” as an industrial product is not the same as “marijuana” as a recreational-medicinal drug, the two are not separate species. You cannot tell them apart without some chemical analysis.

Or a bong hit.

So, what is going on here? 

The plant has been used for many purposes for thousands upon thousands of years. It makes great rope and other fiber products. And much more. And it contains a number of chemicals that have much-valued pharmacological properties, from anti-carcinogenic to psychoactive.

Thomas Jefferson grew hemp. And it was once a major cash crop of Kentucky, which is the state that Mitch McConnell represents, along with Rand Paul, in the U.S. Senate. Both senators are eager to re-introduce the cash crop into their state, though it is apparent that at least one of them is trepidatious about the whole “marijuana” thing.

Now, hemp products are actually legal to buy and sell in the United States. 

Sort of. 

But growing it is murky, considering that ingestible hemp is a Schedule 1 drug no matter how little THC it has — despite the fact that, under the leadership of McConnell, Congress has allowed states to regulate the research and development of low-THC hemp for industrial purposes since 2014.  

But there are complications, especially for McConnell’s politic theory that “hemp” and “marijuana” are two “different” plants.

One complication? Even industrial hemp contains an ingestible oil, Cannabidiol (CBD), which induces neither euphoria nor anything else reality-bending, but is widely believed to have many therapeutic powers. It is also, apparently, one of the “good oils,” like olive oil. (If you believe current nutritional theory.) CBD products are widely sold all over the country, wherever states have allowed for medical marijuana. Indeed, everywhere — in the course of my research, I “just so happened” to receive an email for a CBD product, in which I was told in no uncertain terms that CBD is legal everywhere.

Nevertheless the DEA objects to CBD as much as to THC, saying that all ingestible forms of hemp are illegal. And well within the agency’s expansive purview.

What makes the industrial plant different from the “weed” grown for altering consciousness is how the plant is cultivated and harvested. There is a fair amount of trouble required to get the native plant to produce THC, so the popular term “weed” is the very opposite of apt.

And if this were not confusing enough, there is also the question of the two major strains of the plant, Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica — of which scientists do not yet agree whether they are actually separate species or not. Sativa tends to produce less THC than indica, but there is a range.

Because of all this murkiness, McConnell’s bill might seem to be welcome step towards clarity.

Trouble is, since, sans harvesting context, industrial hemp is indistinguishable from cannabis with THC — to look at; to smell; to touch — officials adamant about cracking down on marijuana-as-a-psychoactive-drug would be much hampered were industrial hemp commonly and legally grown. Indeed, their reconaissance, impounding and court cases would all be severely hobbled were industrial hemp common and legal everywhere.

So, there is a coming turf war, and not just between the DEA and those states that have defied Congress by legalizing marijuana for medicinal or recreational uses (or both), but also between the Agriculture Department and the aforementioned DEA.

This could get interesting. Expect a lot of testimony against McConnell’s hemp bill from professionals associated with the War on Drugs. And a lot of hysteria from the usual sources.

Americans are increasingly tired of the War on Drugs in general, and especially the prohibition of marijuana in particular. A majority wants to see marijuana de-listed from Schedule 1 of prohibited drugs. And the science does more than suggest that lumping the drug with methamphetamines or heroin makes little sense. But, frankly, the whole drug war makes no sense to huge swaths of Americans. 

And, of course, there is the unconstitutionality of it all.

When I covered this story a few days ago on Common Sense (“High on Hemp?” March 29), one of my astute readers (you could be one, too!) touched on this disturbing aspect of the story. “I’ve always considered it interesting that absolutely everyone accepted that the only possible way the federal government could legitimately prohibit alcohol was by a Constitutional Amendment,” wrote Ken in my site’s comments section. “Then, only a few years later, that same federal government arrogated to itself the authority to regulate and prohibit the production, ingestion, and possession of a broad assortment of plants and chemicals without even a nod to the Constitution. Even today, hardly anyone seems to raise the issue. One has to wonder if they’re all on drugs.”

Politicians are high on power, of course. 

And remember, it was during the Roosevelt Administration that 1937’s bizarre Marijuana Tax Act began the federal government’s persecution of marijuana users and regulation of hemp producers. It was part and parcel of the New Deal’s assault on the Constitution.

Could it be time, after 80 years, for conservatives to throw off their thralldom to the progressives and socialists of the Great Depression?

And speaking of time, it seems fitting to question the hesitant, ultra-cautious aspect of McConnell’s proposed legalization of hemp, especially on April Fools’ Day — not because legalization is foolish, but because the federal government so obviously is.

And we are, for putting up with it.

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