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Senators offer plan to legalize industrial hemp

Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have introduced a bill to legalize industrial hemp, with support from Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

By GEORGE PLAVEN

Capital Press

Published on April 16, 2018 1:57PM

Last changed on April 17, 2018 10:02AM

Hemp grows in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators wants to legalize the crop nationwide.

Capital Press File

Hemp grows in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators wants to legalize the crop nationwide.

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A bipartisan group of lawmakers — including Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley — are pushing to legalize industrial hemp in a bill introduced April 12 in Congress.

The Hemp Farming Act of 2018 would define hemp as an agricultural commodity and remove it from the federal list of controlled substances. It would also allow states to become the primary regulators of hemp, while opening the door for hemp researchers to apply for USDA grants and hemp farmers to receive crop insurance.

Wyden and Merkley, both Democrats have joined Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in support of the bill, which they described as common sense legislation to promote jobs and assist American farmers.

“By legalizing hemp and empowering states to conduct their own oversight plans, we can give the hemp industry the tools necessary to create jobs and new opportunities for farmers and manufacturers across the country,” said McConnell, of Kentucky.

Oregon already has a program to regulate industrial hemp, established by House Bill 4060 in 2016. The state Department of Agriculture registers hemp farmers and seed producers, and oversees the testing of hemp products for human consumption. Products may not exceed 0.3 percent average concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive component in cannabis.

ODA figures show 288 industrial hemp growers registered across the state, along with 107 handlers.

Courtney Moran, a Portland-based attorney who serves as president and lobbyist for the Oregon Industrial Hemp Farmers Association, said she has spent the last year and a half working with Wyden’s office on developing the Hemp Farming Act of 2018. If the bill passes, she said it will help clarify things like interstate transportation and banking for Oregon hemp growers and processors.

“We have a very progressive yet robust program in our state,” Moran said. “If and when the federal bill does take effect, we have established a very solid framework for our program,” she said.

Hemp is used in a variety of products. As a food, both the seeds and leaves can be eaten raw and are a rich source of protein and B vitamins. Hemp was one of the first plants to be spun into fiber 10,000 years ago, and can be made into clothing, textiles, paper, biodegradable plastics and insulation.

In an interview with the Capital Press, Wyden said he was first struck by hemp years ago while visiting a Costco store near his home in Southeast Portland. There, He saw a package of hemp hearts for sale, and a thought crossed his mind.

“It seems to me that if you can buy (hemp) at a big supermarket in Oregon, you ought to be able to grow it here in Oregon,” Wyden said.

Wyden has introduced bills to legalize hemp in 2012, 2013 and most recently in 2015, and despite previous defeats, he is more optimistic about the fate of the 2018 hemp bill with support from influential GOP allies such as McConnell.

As Wyden repeatedly emphasized, people cannot get high on hemp with its low concentrations of THC.

“This is not a criminal justice issue. This is an agricultural issue,” he said. “Farmers tell me this is a big opportunity for them.”

Moran is similarly optimistic about including the legislation in this year’s farm bill.

“I think we definitely have our best chance that we’ve ever had,” Moran said. “(McConnell) has a lot of political power, and having his support definitely changes the conversation.”

In a statement, Merkley said it is past time to move beyond “outdated and frustrating” restrictions on hemp farming in the U.S.

Rep. James Comer, a Republican from Kentucky, plans to introduce a companion version of the bill in the House of Representatives.



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