In a remarkable reversal of position which clearly evidences the rhetorical victories logged by cannabis reform advocates, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has become the highest-ranking elected official to endorse cannabis reform since voters in Washington state and Colorado approved historic legalization initiatives in November. McConnell, who credits fellow Kentucky Senator Rand Paul with helping him to see the issue differently, now says that a legal hemp industry in Kentucky would be a “positive development.”
The fact that McConnell hails from Kentucky is significant. For well over a century, the Bluegrass State dominated U.S. hemp production, until federal prohibition of all strains of the cannabis plant shut down the industry in 1937. To this day, federal law still preserves the original monolithic prohibition drafted by Harry Anslinger in the ’30s, even while other developed economies (notably Canada just to the north) have successfully implemented policies which distinguish between intoxicating and industrial strains of cannabis. Indeed, Canada has become the second-largest producer of industrial hemp products in the world, behind only China, which bore the name “the land of mulberry and hemp” in ancient times.
Most likely, the public endorsement represents a canny pivot to harness shifting political winds. Public opinion now favors cannabis reform more strongly than it ever has in the U.S., especially on the issues of allowing medical marijuana for the severely ill and dying and of allowing non-intoxicating industrial hemp industries to thrive. No wonder; Americans have used cannabis for medicine and textiles since the first days of colonial history.
The public endorsement by the prominent and powerful Republican leader makes the continuing silence from President Obama all the more deafening. Bureaucrats in both Colorado and Washington state are expected to begin licensing cultivators and distributors of cannabis in the coming months. As of this week, no one knows whether their attempts to implement the clear will of the people will get them arrested by federal agents.