Backward thinking on hemp; Feds must allow states to restart industry

On questions surrounding cannabis aka marijuana aka hemp, the states are light years ahead of the federal government.

The Obama administration and Congress should get out of the way of state reforms aimed at transforming a vast underground economy into a regulated source of taxation.

Unlike about half the states, Kentucky has shown little official interest in legitimizing marijuana for medical or recreational use.

But there is long-standing support in Kentucky for bringing back a crop that was once common here. Fiber, oil and seed from industrial hemp are in demand by U.S. manufacturers but now have to be imported.

How ridiculous is this? A hemp stalk grown to make fabric or cosmetics is classified by federal law as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, the same as heroin. Cocaine and morphine are Schedule 2 substances, classified as more useful and less harmful than hemp.

This makes no sense, especially as state legislatures and voters move to put marijuana on basically the same legal footing as that other popular intoxicant, alcohol.

We should note that industrial hemp has almost none of the chemical that produces a high in users. Hemp growers cultivate big, fat stalks, while pot growers want big, fat buds. Federal law treats them the same, however, which probably also ties their futures together.

Since voters in Colorado and Washington approved legalizing marijuana for recreational use, the public has heard nothing from Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration or the president.

In 2010, Holder vowed to continue prosecuting marijuana possession in California even if voters approved legalization. The measure's defeat averted a showdown.

But on Nov. 6 more Coloradans voted for legalizing marijuana than for Obama.

What's at stake is deeper than politics. The law, like government, derives its authority from the governed. Some in law enforcement say they would feel wrong enforcing a law that a majority of voters has rejected, except, of course, to protect rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

In Kentucky, Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer is asking the legislature to officially urge the federal government to allow cultivation of industrial hemp.

"We just want the freedom to be able to grow a crop that we know will grow well in Kentucky," Comer recently told a legislative committee. Congress should "get out of the way and let the private sector create jobs in rural communities manufacturing this product."

Two senators who couldn't be further apart politically — Kentucky's Rand Paul and Vermont's Bernie Sanders — came together to sponsor a bill legalizing hemp cultivation. That shows how broad support is, and also that another small-farm state sees hemp as a profitable niche.

While we need uniform national standards in some areas — environmental laws, for example, because pollution travels across state lines — states have long been incubators of social policy and innovation.

The war on drugs has largely been a failure, just as alcohol prohibition was a disaster in the last century.

So, why not free states to try something that just might work better?