Lawmakers push USDA to fund hemp research

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, Nov. 20, 2015 - A bipartisan group of lawmakers is appealing to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to award research funding for industrial hemp research. 

“It appears that USDA has the authority to award competitive grants for the development of industrial hemp,” the lawmakers wrote. “Nevertheless, it seems the USDA has provided conflicting information regarding whether the agency is willing to exercise its authority to award existing federal grant dollars for the research of industrial hemp.”

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The letter was signed by 37 House members and 12 senators, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee. The House members included Tom Massie, a Kentucky Republican, and Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat, who are co-sponsoring a bill to legalize industrial hemp nationwide.

The lawmakers said the 26 states with laws authorizing industrial hemp pilot studies or production have received conflicting information from the USDA as to whether their programs are eligible for federal grants under the 2014 farm bill and whether the funding is even worth pursuing. 

“Due to this lack of consistency, researchers are reluctant to apply for federal funds because of the large amount of time, effort, and cost that goes into any grant application,” the letter read. 

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The lawmakers also asked USDA to provide answers to the following questions:

-Does USDA interpret current law as providing the agency with the authority to award existing and competitive federal funds for the research of industrial hemp?

-If the answer is yes, what steps is USDA taking to disseminate that information and work with interested parties in the competitive grant process?

Industrial hemp - the non-hallucinogenic cousin of marijuana - is produced worldwide and processed into a variety of paper products, fabrics, lotions and construction material. It was made illegal to cultivate in the U.S. during the 1930s.

Importing hemp fiber is legal, however, and Canada and countries in Europe and Asia are feeding the U.S. domestic market's demand for the product. That could change if industrial hemp is legalized with bipartisan bills S 134, sponsored by Wyden, or HR 525, co-sponsored by Massie and Polis.

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