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Sen. Mitch McConnell Loves Hemp, but Is His Real Goal Legalizing CBD?

A new report suggests the Senate Majority leader is downplaying his support for the popular substance in order to get a hemp legalization bill through Congress.

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Photo via Gage Skidmore

Even as many legislative attempts to enact cannabis reform are stalling in Congress, the U.S. Senate recently approved its 2018 farm bill, which includes provisions to legalize hemp as well as all hemp-derived products. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, sponsor and primary champion of the legislation, has argued that legal hemp will become a useful industrial crop for his home state of Kentucky, but some insiders believe that the country’s most powerful Republican lawmaker is actually using the bill to quietly legalize cannabidiol, or CBD  one of the most lucrative trends in natural medicine today  according to a new report from Rolling Stone.

Hemp is a member of the cannabis family, and was banned alongside its psychoactive cousin marijuana in 1937. All forms of cannabis were later classified as dangerous Schedule I drugs with no medical value under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. However things began to turn around in 2014, when that year’s farm bill officially defined low-THC hemp as legally distinct from marijuana and allowed limited cultivation with state approval.

Legalizing hemp for commercial use would allow American farmers to grow the crop for clothing, fuel, or food, but the passage of the 2018 farm bill would also have a huge impact on the country's medical cannabis industry. The popularity of CBD, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid that has dozens of medical benefits, has skyrocketed over recent years, and most CBD products made in the U.S. today are sourced from hemp.

However the DEA recently classified all cannabis derivatives, including CBD, as Schedule I substances, leaving the legality of the cannabinoid in a grey area, while inspiring some right-leaning states to raid stores and seize supplies of CBD products. The hemp language in the new legislation would clearly legalize all hemp derivatives, including CBD.

Some industry insiders believe that the legalization of CBD is not just a side benefit of the farm bill, but is in fact McConnell's primary motivation for proposing the legislation. Cannabis attorney Bob Hoban told Rolling Stone that “almost all of the hemp growers in Kentucky are doing so for CBD production right now…cannabinoids are the cash product that comes out of hemp.”

During the debate over the farm bill, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley proposed an amendment that would exclude CBD and other cannabinoids from the hemp legalization provisions, keeping them classified as illegal drugs. McConnell turned down Grassley's proposal, stating that he “declined to include suggestions that would undercut the essential premise of the bill, namely that hemp and its derivatives should be a legal agricultural commodity,” Rolling Stone reports.

McConnell did not explicitly mention that CBD as one of the derivatives he was hoping to legalize, but as the Republican leader of the Senate, an outright declaration of support for medical cannabis is probably not the best strategy. “McConnell’s omission of CBD is not a denial of it. It’s simply a tactical political move,” said Carl Cameron of cannabis analysis firm New Frontier Data to Rolling Stone. “He’s trying to help potential supporters avoid criticism in places where opposition to marijuana might be misconstrued and then undermine support for hemp.”

“This is just a way for McConnell to be able to move this forward without taking the political risk in talking about what’s going on, which is, yes, CBD is in so much demand that the supply can’t possibly equal the demand any time in the foreseeable future,” Leslie Bocksor of cannabis consulting firm Electrum Partners told Rolling Stone. “This is part of the Kabuki theater of the political environment we’re in today.”

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So far, it looks like McConnell's play has been a success. The farm bill has passed the U.S. Senate with its hemp legalization language intact, and early signals indicate that the House will include the language in their version of the bill as well. If it passes, the legislation is certain to improve the lives of not only the country's farmers, but of many individuals suffering from a wide range of ailments.

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