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Felons may be back in the hemp farming business

Lawmakers are poised to fully legalize hemp after a decades-long campaign. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey
Lawmakers are poised to fully legalize hemp after a decades-long campaign. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey

WASHINGTON — People with felony drug convictions may be able to grow hemp after all.

A controversial provision in the Senate farm bill that bars felons from growing hemp, even as it makes it easier for farmers across the nation to grow the crop, has been modified.

Congress is expected to release final details of the compromise bill next week, with a vote shortly afterward.

The farm bill’s original version would have banned nearly all drug felons from growing hemp. But advocates have learned that thanks to a compromise, the bill would allow such felons to grow hemp beginning 10 years after their conviction.

Any felons now growing hemp, which was permitted on a more narrow basis under a 2014 farm bill, would be allowed to continue.

Advocacy groups were not fully satisfied with the new bill’s likely changes.

“Any ban will still have an adverse affect on people with felony convictions who are trying to get their lives back in order and would unfairly lock people out of new job opportunities they desperately need,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs for the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Ron Wyden, a co-sponsor of the hemp legislation, said the Oregon Democrat was an architect of the new felony compromise.

Wyden told McClatchy in July that he wanted hemp treated like every other agricultural crop, which means no bans on who can grow.

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“Restricting hemp cultivation makes as much sense as restricting who can grow corn,” Wyden said.

The tweak to the felony provision comes amid stiff opposition to a blanket ban from a group of Republican and Democratic members of Congress, along with hemp industry advocates and groups that back efforts to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice laws.

“No other agricultural commodities in the U.S. have this type of restriction,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said, in one of two letters he wrote to House and Senate farm bill negotiators in opposition to the sweeping felon ban. Paul was the lead Republican co-sponsor on a Wyden bill to legalize hemp in 2012, the first Senate hemp bill.

In another letter, Paul and Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., argued that barring drug felons would make it more difficult for people with criminal records, particularly blacks and Hispanics who are over-represented in the criminal justice system, to secure jobs in the hemp industry.

They noted that prior hemp legalization efforts were left to the discretion of the states, which they said are “best placed to know what the most optimal hemp policy is for their residents.”

Many states already go further than the original felony provision.

Kentucky bars anyone convicted of any felony or any drug-related misdemeanor from securing a hemp license for 10 years after the conviction.

North Carolina bars anyone with any felony conviction within the past 10 years from growing hemp. Anyone with a drug-related or controlled substance felony conviction is barred regardless of the date of conviction.

But other states, chiefly Colorado, where more than half the nation’s 2017 hemp production took place, could have found themselves required to run criminal background checks on farmers if the original 2018 farm bill felony provision was included.

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The state briefly considered restricting growers with a criminal record but a state official told McClatchy in August that “If it’s going to be a legitimate industry we don’t want to be fingerprinting farmers who want to find a productive crop.”

The farm bill compromise mirrors several states’ regulations, said Colleen Keahey Lanier, executive director of the Hemp Industries Association. Lanier said she was pleased that lawmakers were willing to soften the restrictions, but said the felony restriction continues to pose an unfair discrimination against the crop.

“It’s still an unfortunate and unnecessary prohibitionist approach that I wish would be eliminated,” Lanier said. “We’re talking agriculture here and a distinct variety of cannabis that isn’t marijuana.”

The original felony provision was included in an amendment submitted by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a major champion of expanding industrial hemp.

McConnell, who routinely tells audiences that hemp is distinctly different from its “illicit cousin” marijuana, did not include the felony provision in his original legislation, but accepted it after hearing from the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Trump administration.

The hemp provision in the farm bill, a detailed measure that spells out federal agriculture policy, would remove hemp from the federal list of controlled substances, giving each state the ability to allow farmers to grow it legally. Thanks to a provision that McConnell included in the 2014 farm bill, many states, including Kentucky, now allow growing hemp on a regulated, experimental basis.

Supporters say taking hemp off the controlled substances list would position hemp as a legitimate agricultural commodity, eliminate confusion and make it easier for farmers and processors to gain access to lines of credit, small business loans and crop insurance.

The text of the compromise bill won’t be released until next week because the House has been out this week in observance of the late President George H.W. Bush.

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