On nights that Congress is in session, Rep. James Comer, a farmer from Kentucky, lays down on a fold-up mattress in his office on the fifth floor of the Longworth building and hits the lights by 10:30. Before he does, he reaches for a small bottle of CBD oil (made from Kentucky hemp) and squeezes a couple of drops onto his tongue.
“If I miss a night or two and don’t take it, my joints hurt really bad, especially in my hands in the morning,” Comer, a dedicated recreational golfer, told me. “But when I take it, I don’t have any joint pain.”
For those unfamiliar with the federal government’s drug laws, it is worth pointing out that the Drug Enforcement Administration considers the substance Comer ingests each night to be as dangerous as heroin. So why would a sitting congressman, even one from a relatively safe Republican district, admit to a reporter that he takes an illegal drug … on government property?
The answer gets at the messy and fast-evolving terrain of marijuana drug policy and enforcement in the United States and the continuing standoff between the 46 states where CBD is legal and a federal government that has steadfastly resisted liberalization drug laws that date to Richard Nixon’s first term. Comer’s home state is not one that has legalized medical marijuana, but the former state agriculture commissioner has a long history advocating for the legalization of hemp, marijuana’s non-psychoactive sister plant, which he considers a potentially lucrative replacement crop for farmers who once made their money off tobacco. And he’s not the only legislator from Kentucky who thinks that.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has backed the legalization of hemp since 2013, even going so far as to call in the head of the DEA for a face-to-face meeting when it tried to shut down a pilot hemp-growing program he had helped set up in Kentucky. Now, Comer, who was the state’s agriculture commissioner at the time, and McConnell are leading efforts to remove hemp from the government’s list of most addictive drugs, known as Schedule 1 controlled substances as part of the pending farm bill. Next to the fierce debate over whether to tie work requirements to food stamps, the so-called “descheduling” of hemp just might be the most controversial aspect of the massive spending bill.
“If you’re a member of Congress from a Southern state that has not had the hemp debate, then your knowledge of industrial hemp is very low” — Rep. James Comer
The DEA and a handful of conservative legislators might be anxious about legalizing hemp, but because McConnell continues to signal his strong support, Republicans have kept their heads down. “There may be some real anti-hemp people in the House, but we didn’t have much problem getting the pilot programs through the last farm bill,” Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota told me. “Mitch McConnell is a lot of things, but one of the things he’s best at is engineering legislation. … He’s the world’s greatest tightrope walker.” It’s not hard to see how hemp could be legal before Election Day.
Meanwhile, both of Oregon’s Democratic senators are strong proponents of the measure. “It’s a big step forward because it says hemp can be treated as any other agricultural commodity, and that’s very different than the way it’s been,” Oregon Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley told me. Hemp advocate Eric Steenstra, who co-founded Vote Hemp in 2000, is equally optimistic: “I feel pretty good that they’re going to get it done,” he told me.
As radical as the move by Congress would be — no substance has ever been taken off the list of Schedule 1 drugs, which has only grown over its 45-year history — the public has already legitimized it. Hemp products like CBD, which is used to treat everything from seizures to digestive problems and sleeplessness, have moved the plant from the hippy fringe into the American mainstream, even in a deep-red district like Kentucky’s First, which President Donald Trump won by a 48.5-point margin. When Comer travels home, the pharmacists come up to him, he told me. “They say, ‘You know, we sell hemp, the CBD oil, and we can’t keep it on the shelf,’” Comer said. “I’ve had pharmacists tell me that they take it.
* * *
Comer’s campaign to legalize hemp began in August 2012 on a Thursday morning at the Kentucky State Fair outside the Kentucky Farm Bureau’s annual country ham breakfast, which is a must-attend for about 1,500 of Kentucky’s top agriculture leaders, politicians and media. At the time, the conservative Farm Bureau thought Comer, then the state’s agriculture commissioner, was “crazy,” Comer’s word, for clamoring for hemp. But with Republican Sen. Rand Paul at his side, Comer started a statewide conversation that continued during a series of town halls. Comer’s argument was simple enough: Hemp is an agricultural crop and deserves to be treated as such, for the sake of Kentucky farmers. “The press was remarkable,” Comer told me. “Any time it was posted online it would be the top story, unless there was a UK basketball game.”
Yet while his support was bipartisan, from Paul and Tea Party groups to Democratic Congressman John Yarmuth and the Sierra Club, so too was his opposition, which included Democratic Governor Steve Beshear and powerful Republican Congressman Hal Rogers, along with police and prosecutor groups. “That made it a good story, because you had a battle,” Comer told me.
Steenstra said he had never seen anything quite like it. “We’ve never seen a more intense effort by state police like we saw in Kentucky,” he told me, referring to TV interviews from the Kentucky state police commissioner, who predicted doom if hemp were legalized. “You got to give Comer a lot of credit for overcoming all that.”
Comer was doing a town hall in rural western Kentucky when his cellphone rang; it was Mitch McConnell calling. Comer assumed that McConnell was about to inform him he was joining the opposition. But McConnell told him he was going to come out publicly in favor of hemp.
“He said, ‘I just wanted to run that by you to see if you had any problems with it.’ I about fainted, because I never would have dreamed that he would have taken an interest in the issue,” Comer told me. Comer’s hemp bill passed the Kentucky legislature and became law (without the governor’s signature), while McConnell took the ball and ran with it in Washington, culminating with the hemp pilot projects in the last farm bill.
Senate Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell | Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
In 2015, Comer plotted to parlay his hemp victory into a run for governor, but two weeks before the May primary, the Courier-Journal ran allegations from Comer’s college ex-girlfriend who claimed Comer had abused her. (Comer denied it.) Comer lost the primary by 83 votes to Matt Bevin, Kentucky’s current governor. The following year, 2016, Ed Whitfield resigned from Congress. Comer won Whitfield’s seat with 72.6 percent of the vote.
As soon as he got to Congress, Comer sponsored the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, which gathered 13 cosponsors. But like many bills introduced by freshmen, it went nowhere — even after roping in Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) as a cosponsor with a promise to route the bill through the Agricultural Committee instead of Judiciary, which has been the traditional graveyard for cannabis legislation. But Comer’s stand-alone hemp bill never went anywhere in the Ag Committee, either. Comer said he managed to squirrel himself onto the conference committee, where he hopes to argue for a version that lines up the Senate’s. He knows he has to overcome the skepticism of legislators who don’t have hemp industries. “If you’re a member of Congress from a Southern state that has not had the hemp debate, then your knowledge of industrial hemp is very low,” Comer told me. “States like Texas, Missouri, Alabama, Georgia — they’ve not had this debate. And therefore, their member of Congress might get one call from some prosecutor, and automatically they’re opposed to it. And you still have law enforcement officials, for whatever reason, that have reservations about making industrial hemp an agricultural crop.”
Cramer, the representative from North Dakota, was a little more charitable: “I don’t know how hemp grows in Oklahoma or Texas, but one of the things the pilot program has shown us in North Dakota is that it’s quite drought resistant. Last year we had a terrible drought, and the hemp grew so high you could hardly believe it.”
However, one thing remains clear: the Senate majority leader is well informed on this issue and not easily intimidated. In April, McConnell introduced a stand-alone hemp bill, a prelude to his farm bill amendment, which gained 29 co-sponsors across the political spectrum, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. “How many times do those guys [McConnell and Schumer] put their names on a bill together?” Steenstra asked rhetorically. “This is an issue that’s bipartisan. We’re really proud of that.”
* * *
Comer knows he has a powerful ally in McConnell. But he cautions: “It’s not a done deal yet.” Some considerable challenges remain.
First, the House and Senate have passed two very different farm bills. The House version does not include hemp, and it would cut food stamp benefits to an estimated 2 million people while imposing work requirements for remaining recipients; it passed narrowly on a party-line vote. The Senate version of the farm bill does not contain work requirements (even McConnell concedes that couldn’t pass the Senate) and includes the “McConnell-Wyden hemp amendment,” as Steenstra calls it. “Senator Wyden originally introduced hemp legislation in 2012, and he led on this for some years before it became more bipartisan,” Steenstra told me. “So I want to give Wyden credit for that.”
Farmers are watching with keen interest, and so too are marijuana advocates, even as hemp proponents work to differentiate between the hemp and marijuana varieties of the cannabis plant. “The plants by all accounts look quite different, and for all practical purposes are two different plants,” Merkley told me. “And I think it’s appropriate to treat them in that fashion. A state can have one vision on traditional marijuana with THC and a totally different position on a hemp plant that’s all about producing fiber and oil.”
“The more people see the benefits cannabis can bring to industry and to medicine, the sooner marijuana prohibition will come to an end more broadly” — Marijuana advocacy journalist Tom Angell
McConnell goes out of his way to assure folks that although he’s advocating for hemp, he is still against marijuana, which he calls hemp’s “illicit cousin.” This could be because his political efforts rely on donations from Republican megadonors like Sheldon Adelson, who is a well-known marijuana opponent. Adelson gave McConnell’s super-PAC $20 million in 2016 alone. The Adelson Family Foundation did not respond to two requests for comment.
Still, despite years of carefully keeping these two plants apart, there’s no question that a victory for one is a victory for the other, marijuana advocates say. “No matter what Mitch McConnell says, ending the prohibition of cannabis in the form of hemp — which is obviously a good step in its own right — will benefit its ‘illicit cousin’ marijuana,” said marijuana advocacy journalist Tom Angell “The more people see the benefits cannabis can bring to industry and to medicine, the sooner marijuana prohibition will come to an end more broadly.”
Angell’s usual sparring partner in such debates, Kevin Sabet of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an anti-legalization group, declined comment. Yet, despite the odd silence from the usual opponents, there’s still a desperate attempt by a certain set of Republicans to stop this hemp thing in its tracks, Comer told me. “There’s still a lot of opposition to industrial hemp in Congress, more than most people realize,” he said.
McConnell has a solution to that problem, too: He appointed himself to the farm bill conference committee, so anyone opposed to hemp gets to be against it to his face. “As Majority Leader, I put myself on the Conference, and we’re ready to get to work to ensure the future of American agriculture,” McConnell said in an August 2 news release. “I will advocate for Kentucky’s multi-billion-dollar agriculture industry. … Additionally, I will strongly advocate to legalize industrial hemp.”
Although the pro-hemp caucus is bipartisan, it’s not all kumbaya. With the work requirements and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cuts, there’s another deeply divisive issue buried in McConnell’s hemp language: a ban on anyone with a drug-crime felony from participating in legal hemp. McConnell added the felon ban to appease concerns he received, his office said, from the Senate Judiciary Committee, the administration, and outside interest groups. Merkley told me that the felon ban doesn’t make sense to him: “You’ve got a de-scheduled, non-drug crop, so why would you ban drug felons?”
Steenstra told me the felon ban was added to appease Chuck Grassley, Republican senator from Iowa and chairman of the Judiciary Committee: “We’re not happy about the felon ban, but I can confirm for you that was only at the request of Senator Grassley. He was upset because the bill wasn’t going through his committee, and it had been under his jurisdiction previously. And he didn’t want to see it move forward. So that was his pound of flesh that he got out of McConnell … and it’s going to affect people with experience in cannabis cultivation.” A spokesperson for Grassley said he supports the felon ban but didn’t propose it.
Senator Charles Grassley | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Even Republicans have concerns with it: “The felon ban, I don’t know,” Cramer told me. “To me, if hemp is a safe product that’s now been scientifically engineered to the point that it’s not ‘drugs,’ why would we be so cautious? … Having a felon ban hangs on to some of that stigma.”
Merkley told me the felon ban is bad but legalizing hemp is more important: “The overall sense of this is to make hemp a commodity, to enable states that want to allow production to do so. It would just be a tremendous opportunity for American agriculture, so I certainly hope we can get it to the Oval Office.”
Only by getting hemp through the Oval Office will its taboo finally break, even as these members of Congress do their part to bring hemp into the political mainstream. Comer went on the record to say he takes CBD every day. Cramer wouldn’t go that far, but he said his wife takes it: “She’s an advocate,” he told me. “I’m on the healing end of a cold, and my wife just asked me if I wanted some of her [CBD oil], and I said, ‘No, not today.’” In July, McConnell stopped by Goodwood Brewery in downtown Louisville and bought a six-pack of hemp-flavored beer to do his part to normalize it, but others in Congress just aren’t there yet. Comer knows of another congressman who uses CBD, but when Comer asked him to go on the record for this story, his fellow Republican told him: “Hell, no, I’ve got a tough race!”
James Higdon is a freelance writer based in Louisville and author of The Cornbread Mafia: A Homegrown Syndicate’s Code of Silence and the Biggest Marijuana Bust in American History. He can be reached at @jimhigdon. Full disclosure: His father, Jimmy Higdon, is a Republican state senator in the Kentucky state legislature.
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