Hemp Unites McConnell and Merkley

The Republican leader and the Oregon Democrat both want to encourage research on industrial uses for marijuana’s cousin.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 07: (L-R) Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) hold a news conference before the final passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act at the U.S. Capitol November 7, 2013 in Washington, DC. The bill, which protects gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people from being fired because of their sexual orientation, is not expected to be taken up by the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
National Journal
Michael Catalini
June 5, 2014, 12:17 p.m.

Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell and Sen. Jeff Merkley do not usu­ally agree on much — the GOP lead­er has even taken to en­dors­ing the Ore­gon Demo­crat’s Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ent. But there is one area where their in­terests curi­ously, at least on the sur­face, in­ter­sect.

Hemp — pot’s in­dus­tri­al, THC-sapped cous­in, of­ten used to make rope — has bound Mc­Con­nell and Merkley to­geth­er over policy.

Merkley and Mc­Con­nell found them­selves back­ing an amend­ment to the Com­merce, Justice, and Sci­ence ap­pro­pri­ations bill on Thursday that would re­in­force a pro­vi­sion of the farm bill. Since in­dus­tri­al hemp is a fed­er­ally con­trolled sub­stance but leg­al in some states, in­clud­ing Ore­gon and Ken­tucky, the amend­ment seeks to pre­vent fed­er­al funds from be­ing used to un­der­mine the lan­guage in the farm bill that al­lowed col­leges and uni­versit­ies to study the sub­stance.

The amend­ment passed the Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee 22-8 and sug­gests that find­ing agree­ment among polit­ic­ally op­pos­ite mem­bers is pos­sible when their home-state in­terests are at stake.

Mc­Con­nell has more than a passing in­terest in the is­sue. The Ken­tucky De­part­ment of Ag­ri­cul­ture, op­er­at­ing un­der a pro­vi­sion in­ser­ted in­to this year’s farm bill by Mc­Con­nell, sud­denly found its re­search stopped when the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion seized the agency’s hemp seeds at an air­port. DEA has since backed down, but the Com­merce, Justice, Sci­ence amend­ment would re­in­force the mes­sage that no fed­er­al funds can be used to un­der­cut the farm bill pro­vi­sion al­low­ing hemp re­search.

Identic­al lan­guage was passed in a House ver­sion of the spend­ing bill last week, sponsored by Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky. The House bill also has word­ing to block fed­er­al in­ter­fer­ence with state-leg­al­ized med­ic­al marijuana activ­it­ies — but the Sen­ate Ap­pro­pri­ations pan­el Thursday did not ad­opt lan­guage per­tain­ing to that.

Mc­Con­nell was ab­sent from Thursday’s markup, but he is­sued a state­ment about the pro­vi­sion: “This meas­ure will help pre­vent our leg­al hemp seeds se­cured by state De­part­ments of Ag­ri­cul­ture and used for leg­al pi­lot pro­grams from be­ing blocked by DEA or oth­er fed­er­al agen­cies in the fu­ture. These leg­al pi­lot pro­grams au­thor­ized by my le­gis­la­tion could help boost our state’s eco­nomy and lead to fu­ture jobs.”

Merkley made the case that the U.S. is the only coun­try that pro­hib­its the grow­ing of in­dus­tri­al hemp and that the sub­stance has many uses, from hand lo­tion to food.

Two sen­at­ors spoke against the amend­ment. Rank­ing mem­ber Richard Shelby of Alabama ar­gued that hemp was a fed­er­ally banned sub­stance, and Di­anne Fein­stein of Cali­for­nia wor­ried that the amend­ment was re­dund­ant, giv­en the farm bill lan­guage. She also said the meas­ure could com­plic­ate DEA’s job.

The Mc­Con­nell-Merkley al­li­ance, while brief, is note­worthy be­cause of how in­volved Mc­Con­nell has been in back­ing Mon­ica We­hby, Merkley’s op­pon­ent in Ore­gon. Dur­ing a rally ahead of his state’s primary in Ken­tucky, Mc­Con­nell praised We­hby’s can­did­acy, and his lead­er­ship PAC, the Bluegrass Com­mit­tee, has donated $5,000 to her cam­paign.

Aside from their polit­ic­al dif­fer­ences, the sen­at­ors are also on op­pos­ite sides of a num­ber of policy is­sues. Merkley firmly sup­ports the Af­ford­able Care Act, while Mc­Con­nell fam­ously pledged to re­peal the law “root and branch.”

Merkley was also one of the lead­ing Demo­crats press­ing Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id to change the Sen­ate rule to make it easi­er for Pres­id­ent Obama’s nom­in­ees to be con­firmed. Mc­Con­nell, on the oth­er hand, has de­cried the so-called nuc­le­ar op­tion as a blight on the Sen­ate’s re­cord.

But on hemp, the sen­at­ors’ views co­in­cide. Mc­Con­nell has been a cham­pi­on of loosen­ing reg­u­la­tions on in­dus­tri­al hemp, prais­ing the in­clu­sion of such a pro­vi­sion in the farm bill earli­er in this Con­gress. Merkley, too, has backed oth­er in­dus­tri­al hemp le­gis­la­tion in the past, such as the In­dus­tri­al Hemp Farm­ing Act of 2011.

That in­dus­tri­al hemp comes from can­nabis, the same plant that pro­duces marijuana, was not lost on some of the sen­at­ors. Demo­crat Jon Test­er of Montana sup­por­ted the amend­ment.

“This isn’t the stuff you smoke,” he said. “You smoke this, you gotta smoke 80 pounds.”

Draw­ing laughter from the com­mit­tee, Chair­wo­man Bar­bara Mikul­ski poin­ted out Test­er seemed to have ex­pert know­ledge of the sub­ject.

The is­sue came up as the Sen­ate be­gins to mark up the 12 spend­ing bills, with the full Sen­ate ex­pec­ted to con­sider the meas­ures later this month and dur­ing two weeks in Ju­ly.

The com­mit­tee also con­sidered the Trans­port­a­tion and Hous­ing and Urb­an De­vel­op­ment bill, with mem­bers back­ing an amend­ment from Sen. Susan Collins of Maine aimed at cor­rect­ing what she views as an un­in­ten­ded con­sequence of truck­ing reg­u­la­tions.

Com­pared to the par­tis­an snip­ing over amend­ments and fili­busters that fre­quently char­ac­ter­ize de­bate on the floor, the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess at the com­mit­tee level has been col­legi­al, by and large. Pas­sage of a two-year budget that set spend­ing levels aided that pro­cess, sen­at­ors have said.

Billy House contributed to this article.
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