Ban on hemp should be lifted

Boosters of industrial hemp sometimes hurt their own cause by overselling the now illegal crop's commercial potential.

We have to forgive them their excess, though, because hemp is a remarkably versatile plant with a multitude of non-drug uses.

Cultivated for its fiber and the oil from its seeds, hemp can be grown without a lot of petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers and enjoys a long and legitimate history in Kentucky that has nothing to do with its illicit twin, marijuana.

Hemp has another remarkable quality: the ability to unite Republicans and Democrats, though not yet enough of them to lift the 50-year ban on growing the crop in this country.

A bill filed in the U.S. Senate last month would exclude industrial hemp from the legal definition of marijuana. This could lead to restoring it as a legitimate U.S. crop, one that the grandchildren of Kentucky hemp farmers have been eager to grow themselves.

The bill is sponsored by Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky, Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Paul was at the Kentucky State Fair last month, wearing a hemp shirt, talking up the advantages of industrial hemp for Kentucky farmers.

With him, also urging Congress and the state legislature to support re-legalizing the crop, was fellow Republican and Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who is reviving the state's decade-old Industrial Hemp Commission and serving as its chairman.

The biggest obstacle to restoring hemp as a legal agricultural commodity is the fear that it would interfere with enforcing drug laws.

This argument insults the intelligence of law enforcement officers. They would have no trouble distinguishing between a permitted field being cultivated for its stalks and seeds and an illegal patch being cultivated for the leaves and flowers that contain THC, the chemical that triggers temporary euphoria in users of marijuana.

The critical difference between hemp and marijuana is THC content. Hemp contains almost no THC, certainly not enough to produce a high. Growers of marijuana who understand botany would not use legal hemp crops to hide illegal marijuana because cross-pollination would destroy the potency of the marijuana.

Anyone who thinks that continuing to outlaw hemp is critical to reducing marijuana use should consider what's happened in the last 50 years: Since growing hemp was made illegal, marijuana use has become so widespread and accepted that 17 states and the District of Columbia have legalized some form of medical marijuana.

Outlawing hemp clearly has not stopped the consumption of marijuana.

It has denied farmers a possibly profitable crop.

It's also stifled the development of new uses for hemp fiber, even though it has the potential to soften the environmental impact of everything from paper to plastics manufacture.