Later this week, President Obama will sign a massive five-year, $1 trillion farm bill, which cleared the Senate Tuesday. And when he does, some longstanding regulations on cannabis will go up in smoke.
No, the government isn't deregulating the marijuana industry. Rather, tucked deep in the 959-page bill is an amendment that will ease restrictions on hemp, marijuana's hardy, nonintoxicating cousin.
The amendment won't legalize hemp per se, but will allow universities and researchers in states that permit industrial hemp production to grow and study the plant. Advocates have long wanted to legalize it as a commodity that can be grown for fabric, food, and paper, among other things. But until now, the federal government has made no real distinction between hemp and pot, banning both as controlled substances. Still, 10 states — including California, Oregon, Colorado, and Kentucky — have legalized hemp cultivation, and 11 more have pending legislation on the issue.
Though the change will only affect the states where hemp production is already legal, it's nonetheless a baby step toward the pro-hemp crowd's ultimate goal of legal commercial production.
"This is big," Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, told Al Jazeera last month, adding that it's "part of an overall look at cannabis policy, no doubt."
Indeed, the change comes amid a broader shift in the way states and the federal government are approaching cannabis.
Washington and Colorado this year became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana use, and the Justice Department, after a long review period, announced last August that it would not interfere with those laws once they went into effect. About a dozen other states are considering full legalization, too; Alaska is set to vote on that later this year.
While the new legal marijuana marketplaces are just getting started, the U.S. hemp market is already estimated at about $500 million annually and growing, according to a Congressional Research Service report. But since there are strict limits on domestic production, hemp imports, mainly from China, support the thriving market.
That explains why hemp proponents come from across the political spectrum, including both green liberals and business-friendly Republicans. Notably, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is a huge backer of hemp legalization, believing it could provide an economic boost to his state.
"This is an important victory for Kentucky's farmers," he said in a statement on the farm bill, adding, "we are laying the groundwork for a new commodity market." Last year, McConnell co-sponsored a bill, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013, that would have excluded hemp from the Controlled Substances Act.
Still, it's not as if Washington is about to set fire to all of its cannabis laws. The federal government still considers marijuana a Schedule 1 drug — the highest classification — and has cracked down on medical dispensaries in the past few years. That said, efforts like McConnell's to legalize hemp have gone nowhere in the past, falling short against strong resistance from opponents worried about a slippery slope to widespread drug decriminalization, so supporters must be riding high.