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The federal government is ready to let farmers grow cannabis — at least the kind that can't get people high.
Hemp — marijuana’s nonintoxicating cousin that's used to make everything from clothing to cooking oil — could soon be cultivated in 10 states under a federal farm bill passed by the U.S. Senate on Tuesday and sent to President Barack Obama for his expected signature.
The bill would allow the establishment of pilot growing programs.
With marijuana laws loosening nationwide, lawmakers who support industrial hemp cultivation saw an opening and pushed through a provision that allows colleges and state agencies to grow and conduct research on the crop in the nine states where it is legal.
Kentucky is among them, and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was a major backer of the provision.
The plant's return to legitimacy could clear the way for U.S. farmers to compete in an industry currently dominated by China. Even though it hasn't been grown in the United States for decades, the country is one of the fastest-growing hemp markets.
In 2011, the U.S. imported $11.5 million worth of legal hemp products, up from $1.4 million in 2000. Most of that growth was seen in hemp seed and hemp oil, which finds its way into granola bars and other products.
"This is big," Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, a group that advocates for the plant's legal cultivation, told Al Jazeera about the prospective legislation late last month. "We've been pushing for this a long time."
Legalized growing of hemp had congressional allies from both ends of the political spectrum. Democrats from marijuana-friendly states have pushed to legalize hemp cultivation, as have Republicans from states where the fibrous plant could be a profitable new crop.
Growing or using hemp is currently illegal under federal law, but it has a long history of use in the U.S.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp, but centuries later the plant was swept up in anti-drug efforts, and growing it without a federal permit was banned in the 1970 Controlled Substances Act.
The last Drug Enforcement Administration hemp permit was issued in 1999 for a quarter-acre experimental plot in Hawaii. That permit expired in 2003.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture last recorded an industrial hemp crop in the late 1950s. At the 1943 peak, more than 150 million pounds were harvested on 146,200 acres.
It's not clear whether legalized hemp cultivation suggests that the federal government is ready to follow the 20 states that have already legalized medical marijuana, including two that also allow its recreational use.
"This is part of an overall look at cannabis policy, no doubt," Steenstra said.
However, opponents of legalized pot insist the hemp change doesn't mean marijuana is right behind.
Kevin Sabet, director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a national alliance that opposes pot legalization, downplayed the change to the farm bill in an interview with The Associated Press last month.
"On the one hand, I think it's part of a larger agenda to normalize marijuana by a few," Sabet said. "On the other hand, will it have any difference at the end of the day? I would be highly skeptical of that."
Analysts have predicted that legal hemp would remain a boutique crop, and the Congressional Research Service recently cited wildly differing projections about its economic potential.
The farm bill, which was approved by the House of Representatives last week, will cost an estimated $956 billion over 10 years, a savings of about $16.6 billion compared with current funding, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press
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