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It's High Time to Legalize Hemp

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Last week, I received a very warm reception from my hometown's Tea Party organization.

Yes, you read that correctly...

My regular readers know that I am an unabashed, gay-marriage-embracing, pro-choice-supporting, clean-energy-promoting, immigration-reforming, economic-inequality-battling, church-and-state-separating LIBERAL.

And yet, I repeat (for my friends that may have fainted upon reading the first sentence of this essay), I was warmly welcomed and even embraced by our local lovers of liberty.

I wish I could credit my soaring oratory or my youthful charisma, but I simply can't deny that I'm a better recovering politician than an active one.

The truth is that I spoke on a topic that knows no ideology, an issue that has broad bi-partisan support, and yet one that has met stiff political resistence from the powers that be:

The legalization of industrial hemp.

The subject of hemp, while discussed and debated for decades, unfortunately has been mostly seen as a cause célèbre of the political margins, either the "hippie" Far Left or the libertarian Far Right. But my recent experience with the issue reveals that public support for industrial hemp legalization -- particularly within the agricultural community -- is reaching a tipping point.

And it's time for the business community to shoulder-pad-up and push legalized industrial hemp across the goal line.

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A few months ago, I caused a bit of a stir in my Bible Belt home state of Kentucky when I published an essay here that argued it was high time to legalize marijuana.

When I served as Kentucky's state treasurer, it was easy for me to represent my conservative constituents and oppose legalizing cannabis.

But leaving the arena last year freed me of my electoral blinders and allowed me to take a more critical look at the underlying issues. And I concluded that legalizing cannabis would enable our government, as well as our society, to better reflect universally shared moral values, such as compassion toward the sick, justice in our legal system and economic opportunity for all.

But while a recent Gallup poll revealed that a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana, and our junior U.S. senator's father, Ron Paul -- a legal pot proponent -- has run well in the GOP presidential primaries, I concede that legalizing marijuana is still a few political cycles away.

But hemp is not pot.

The two plants are quite distinct in the way that they appear physically and are cultivated agriculturally. As outlined in Business Lexington:

Industrial hemp is grown in tight rows to maximize stalk yield, the part of the plant that is rich in the long bast fibers that line the outside of the stalk and is rich in cellulose in the stalk's inner hurd. Marijuana or seed crops are grown with more space between them to favor the flourishing of leaves and flowers. Different strains of the same plant, cannabis sativa l., have varying amounts of THC, the psychoactive component. Industrial hemp, whether grown for industry or seed stock, has less than one percent THC, making it a non-drug crop. Marijuana strains of the plant can range from 5 percent to 20 percent THC content.

Smoking hemp can't get you high; it just might make you feel a little foolish that you tried.

More significantly, legalized industrial hemp production could emerge as a prolific cash crop that could bring hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue to Kentucky, and many billions of dollars to the United States.

There are more than 25,000 uses for the crop, including rope, clothing, automotive paneling and door installation -- even makeup.

Most exciting to me -- as a clean energy advocate -- is hemp's application as a clean-burning alternative fuel.

Hemp burns with no carbon emissions and produces twice as much ethanol per acre as corn. While bio-fuels critics have raised alarms at the diversion of food products into fuel production -- causing a recent spike in food prices -- hemp has no such negative economic side effects. Moreover, hemp crops need no pesticides to flourish, and their cultivation leaves the soil more enriched.

As the United States struggles with the dual enormous challenges of climate change and dependence on foreign oil, industrial hemp could become a powerful weapon in America's energy independence arsenal.

Legalizing hemp would provide a no-risk, no-victim economic jackpot for the United States. And it hasn't gone unnoticed: A recent poll in my very "red" state revealed that already 70 percent of Kentuckians support the legal use of industrial hemp.

So why haven't we seen action?

The legislative stasis should come as no surprise: Our political system's deep dysfunction and hyper-partisanship too often prevent even the most obviously beneficial public policies from becoming law.  And too many politicians are paralyzed by the fear that they would be tagged as "soft on crime," or teased for supporting one of marijuana's distant cousins.

That's why it is critical for the business community to become engaged. Particularly here in Kentucky, when business leaders have joined in concerted statewide reform efforts, the community has provided the critical, non-partisan leadership needed to overcome political stasis. And on this manifestly economic issue, no group has more credibility than the men and women who create the jobs and make the products that keep our economy humming.

Further, the sober credibility of the button-down Main Street crowd will help extinguish the fears of politicians who worry about being associated with a "radical" product.  The business community's blessing will provide sufficient political cover for those afraid of being demagogued or misunderstood.

Should the business community take a strong stance on behalf of legalizing hemp, it would provide the final push necessary to solidify support for its legalization. When small-town and large-city business people join forces with rural farmers to advocate for hemp legalization, our political leaders cannot ignore them.

If you agree, encourage your community's business leaders to become involved as advocates for the issue.  Equally as important, contact your Congressmen and state legislators immediately to insist that hemp legalization is not a radical, fringe issue, but rather a moral and economic imperative for our country.

And maybe once liberals and Tea Partiers develop a successful bi-partisan coalition for legalizing hemp, the potential is endless for further joint, uh, concerted action.  We certainly won't agree on everything, but there are too many common sense, non-ideological solutions to our country's most intractable problems that never are addressed by our broken political system.

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