Supporters of industrial hemp exhaled a sigh of relief as a proposal to let farmers grow hemp for industrial purposes cleared a major hurdle.

As originally written, House Bill 1547 would have reclassified certain controlled substances, keeping drugs like the opioid fentanyl in line with federal standards. Industrial hemp was not originally included in the proposed change, but a successful amendment from Rep. Dana Criswell, R-Olive Branch, would remove industrial hemp from Mississippi’s list of controlled substances. The bill passed 96-15 despite objections from the committee chairwoman who presented it.

Rep. Dana Criswell, R-Olive Branch

Amid cries to “give our farmers another crop,” Criswell noted that the U.S. Farm Bill, signed by President Trump in December, had already declassified industrial hemp as a federally controlled substance.

“If we wait, even one more year on this, we are putting our farmers behind,” Criswell said. “Let our farmers grow another crop and make some money for our state.”

House Drug Policy Chair Patricia Willis, R-Diamondhead, however, urged lawmakers to vote down the amendment. Willis said that while she wasn’t opposed to removing hemp from the controlled substance list in theory, doing so at this time is “putting the cart before the horse.” The issue here, she said, was that while industrial hemp was technically legal, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had not yet approved regulations for its production.

Representative Patricia H. Willis, center, speaks to other state representatives during the 2019 legislative session in Jackson Wednesday, January 9, 2019.

“I want you to know I have struggled over this… I am all for farmers growing a new crop and making money for Mississippi. And I wish I could say vote for this amendment, but I cannot,” Willis said. “If you exempt hemp from the schedule we have no procedures in place from the Department of Agriculture to regulate this.”

The exclusion of industrial hemp on the federal list of controlled substances was a coup for U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., whose home state Kentucky already produces thousands of acres of hemp annually as part of a research pilot program. Revenues from some hemp production are projected to reach over $22 billion by 2022, according to Crain’s Business. 

Although hemp is derived from a plant similar to schedule X drug marijuana, it contains only a very small amount of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. The House bill would require any plant grown not to exceed 0.3 percent THC.

“This does not get you high,” Criswell said, as several people in the House chamber laughed.

However, two amendments to legalize the kind of marijuana that does get you high, at least for medicinal purposes, did not get traction in the House on Tuesday.

After the industrial hemp amendment passed, Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, proposed adding a medical marijuana amendment to House Bill 1547, pointing out that 31 other states have already legalized marijuana for medical purposes.

“How can you equate opioid crisis to medical marijuana when 30 other states have adopted it?” Scott said. “… I’m just asking you to keep the conversation going.”

On Tuesday morning, the House voted for the second time to set aside House Bill 867 after Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, again brought up an amendment legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes. That bill, as written, would allow people to be charged with a felony if drugs they give or sell result in someone’s death.

“This amendment should not pass. It does not need to be in this bill. Let’s not legalize the trafficking of marijuana in Mississippi,” said Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon.

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.