Industry News & Updates

Anti-Pot Lawmakers Now Singing a Different Tune

By Harris Wheless
Sebastian Pichler

Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on a tour of a Kentucky hemp farm and processing facility to get an in-depth look at the gears that turn the machine. Previously a staunch opponent of marijuana, last year McConnell was perhaps the most outspoken advocate for hemp legalization in the senate. He was instrumental in garnering bipartisan support for the provision in the 2018 Farm Bill, signed into law in December, that legalized industrial hemp.

John Boehner, who was once “unalterably opposed” to marijuana, is now on the board of Acreage Holdings, a large marijuana investment firm. The former speaker of the House recently admitted during an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered that he has never tried marijuana and doesn’t plan on using it. “But if other people use the product,” Boehner said, “who am I to say they shouldn’t?”

All this begs the question: why are these big political players shifting their stances on cannabis? Well, it may have something to do with the most popular hemp extract on the market: CBD.

McConnell’s complicated stance on hemp

Last year, when another senator proposed an amendment to the Farm Bill that would exclude CBD and other compounds from the definition of legal hemp, McConnell shot it down. “I’ve 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,” he said.

McConnell has been careful to emphasize the distinction between marijuana and hemp, even though they are essentially the same plant. The two forms of cannabis primarily differ in the amount of THC each contains. Marijuana is cannabis that has over 0.3% THC, and hemp is any plant with less than that amount of THC.

The rhetoric used by McConnell and other politicians focuses on the benefits hemp legalization may have on farmers and businesses that manufacture hemp-based clothing and machine parts. Distinguishing between hemp and marijuana serves as an appeal to anti-pot donors and voters. It also covers up CBD as the primary motivation for legalizing hemp.

This is a strategy that non-politicians are using as well. Those in the business have learned that they can’t use the word “CBD” explicitly in some spaces, and they can’t make any medical claims that haven’t been proven. Facebook, for instance, doesn’t allow businesses to mention CBD in their paid ads. If a business does, its account may be disabled.

In 2017, over 78,000 acres of hemp was grown in the U.S., up from 9,649 acres in 2016.

Total sales on hemp-based products, which in 2017 were $820 million, swelled to about $1.1 billion in 2018. That number is expected to more than double by 2022.

The 2014 Farm Bill created a pilot program where state departments of agriculture and universities could give farmers the ability to grow hemp. Under this program McConnell’s home state of Kentucky was the second biggest producer of hemp behind only Colorado. And since that bill was passed, almost all of the Kentucky farmers growing hemp are doing so for CBD production. So, while only directly embracing hemp farming, McConnell is certainly aware of CBD’s economic potential, and the way he can leverage certain kinds of rhetoric to appeal to his constituency.

Boehner’s record on cannabis speaks for itself

“This is one of the most exciting opportunities you’ll ever be part of,” John Boehner says in an infomercial for the National Institute for Cannabis Investors. “Frankly, we can help you make a potential fortune.”

Boehner joined the board of Acreage Holdings in April 2018, after decades of opposition to marijuana legalization and heavy crackdowns on users. Quartz reported last year that over 400,000 people were arrested for marijuana charges from 2011 to 2015 — the period when Boehner was speaker.

In 1999, Boehner voted to prohibit medical marijuana in Washington, D.C. He also opposed the 2011 Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act, which died in committee. The bill would have legalized recreational adult use and removed marijuana from the DEA’s list of Schedule 1 controlled substances.

In April of this year, Acreage announced plans to sell itself to the canadian company Canopy Growth, the world’s largest legal pot producer. But there’s a catch: the $3 billion deal hinges on the U.S. legalizing marijuana at the federal level. Needless to say, Boehner and his team of lobbyists are now very busy.

Some have speculated that Boehner’s sudden about-face is due to financial opportunism. And the record shows that Beohner is no stranger to courting big industry money. In 1995, during a vote on a bill that would abolish a yearly $49 million giveaway of taxpayer money to tobacco companies, Boehner circled the House floor handing out campaign checks from tobacco companies. In the end, it worked — the bill passed.

Over his 14 years in the house, Boehner received almost $500,000 in contributions from the tobacco industry. Goldman Sachs, MillerCoors, and other businesses that rank among the nation’s largest also contributed to his re-election campaigns.

It seems like Boehner and McConnell have their work cut out for them. Although, the nation is starting to come around on legalization. In October, a Pew Research Center survey found that 62 percent of Americans said that marijuana should be legalized. When the survey took political affiliation into account, it was determined that only 45 percent of Republicans thought marijuana should be legal. Still, this number has increased from 39 percent in 2015.

Who knows, maybe in a few years that percentage of Republicans will have climbed to over half. Many activists and lawmakers are working hard to legalize marijuana, and it may only be a short period of time until they succeed. In the meantime, the CBD industry is projected to continue growing at a staggering pace. And it is yet to be seen what heights it will reach in the years to come.

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