WASHINGTON (Gray DC) — Its supporters see a cash crop with a variety of uses, but detractors worry it's a cover for its intoxicating cousin.
If it looks like pot, and smells like pot, it may actually be another plant: hemp.
"I think it's time to make hemp legal," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said in a one-on-one interview.
While it's legal to sell hemp in the U.S., it's technically illegal to grow it — because it's nearly identical genetically to marijuana. McConnell said while hemp may look like its psychedelic cousin, he notes it won't get you high and has plenty of practical uses.
"It's a very diversified crop," he said. "It could end up in your dashboard, it could end up in your food, it could end up in your medicine."
In 2014, the federal government allowed states to experiment with letting farmers plant and harvest it. That's happening in 35 states, including Kentucky, where McConnell said the crop has already generated 16 million dollars.
The biggest tract of legally grown hemp in Virginia is right here in the Shenandoah Valley, which was visited by Congressman Bob Goodlatte last year as part of his support for allowing the crop to be commercially grown in our area.
"There's every indication that this will be a good thing for Kentucky farmers," McConnell said of permanently lifting the federal restriction on growing the crop.
Tommy Loving, executive director of the Kentucky Narcotic Officers' Association, said legal hemp makes law enforcement tougher.
"If you could make a hemp plant grow out orange, instead of green, looking identical to a marijuana plant, we could care less how much hemp you grew," he said.
Loving said over the last three years, police dealt with a handful of cases where hemp provided a smokescreen for illegal marijuana grows.
"Not a lot," he conceded, "actually, it's surprising to me that there have been so few."
Under McConnell's plan, growers would register with their state's agriculture department. That's how many of the experimental programs are already doing it. Law enforcement would be able to check that list and follow up with an inspection of a property if they had a suspicion that marijuana and not hemp is being grown.
Loving did say Kentucky's experiment with hemp has decreased his concern.
Congress is expected to seriously consider McConnell's proposal — along with a broad range of agricultural issues — during Farm Bill debate.