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Philly420: Hemp is happening in Pa., but medical marijuana bill stalled

William Penn is smiling. One of his favorite crops is on the way to a comeback in Pennsylvania.

On Tuesday the Pa House Agricultural and Rural Affairs Committee unanimously voted in favor of an industrial hemp farming bill.

Sponsored by Rep. Russ Diamond (R-Hershey) the bill seeks to bring back a crop that was a staple in the Keystone State for hundreds of years. Hemp is a cousin of marijuana that has been prohibited since the end of World War II.

"The feds are catching on to the enormous environmental and economic benefits of the use of industrial hemp, and this pilot program anticipates the full legalization of hemp crops for industrial purposes in the future," said Diamond in a statement. "My bill will put Pennsylvania in position to reap the economic rewards that will come when further barriers are removed."

Almost all of the hemp used in the United States for fiber and food is imported from Canada and Europe. China has been making  inroads into hemp production in recent years as well. According to a Congressional Research Service report from earlier this year, the current U.S. market for hemp products is $580 million annually.

Traditionally hemp was used to make rope. Think of the miles of the stuff needed on the sailing ships of yesteryear. Hemp is versatile. Cables on ski lifts are hemp cordage wrapped in woven steel. Its fibers can be refined and made into soft cloth.

Hemp seeds are a valuable food source that have become available in mainstream grocery stores. The seeds can be roasted and eaten on their own or milled into a protein-packed flour that is completely gluten-free.

In Canada, Motive Inc. is making a car called the Kestrel from hemp. The body panels, seat covers and pretty much everything but the engine are hemp. Several Canadian companies are even making hemp guitars.

In Germany, thousands of acres of hemp are farmed every year. According to a report from the U.S. Congress we are the only industrialized nation on the planet that doesn't farm this crop.

This year industrial hemp was harvested in Colorado, Kentucky and a handful of other states. Still there are only a few hundred acres being farmed in these nascent programs in the US.

If hemp could be brought back in force it could be a real boon to family farmers. Remarkably resilient and low maintenance it is far less costly to produce than other fiber or food crops such as cotton or soybeans.

Rep. Diamond pointed out that the federal government has eased the way for states to begin allowing hemp. The U.S. Farm Act of 2014 made it official with language that allows states to pass such laws. This makes it easy for Pa. to green light production.

Under the Pa. hemp bills, university programs and some farms, under a special license, will begin to produce research crops to prove the viability of the resource. Down the road full production can be ramped up.

The vote in the House Agriculture committee this week took just 10 minutes. There were no amendments. A companion bill in the Senate sponsored by Senator Judy Schwank (D- Fleetwood) is expected to be voted through the corresponding Senate committee in the next few weeks. They will then go to floor votes in both chambers.

Amazing how swift and smooth things can work in Harrisburg.

Yet the polar opposite process is happening for medical cannabis.

Last week a task force of House Representatives released a long-awaited set of recommendations for a compassionate use bill. The Senate passed a limited medical marijuana bill last May. Since then the House has done nothing but stall.

The bi-partisan group of thirteen reps was formed at the behest of House Majority Leader Dave Reed. The group met frequently over the summer. But the result was more legislative theater than forward momentum.

The task force considered everything from delivery methods to the number of dispensaries. In the end they agreed with the Senate that no smoking of medical marijuana should be allowed. Only pills, oils, tinctures and liquids for vaporizers should be permitted. They seemed to agree with SB3 on most points, including that there should be about 65 locations for medical marijuana dispensaries across the state.

Rep. Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin) has already introduced a competing bill that would cut the number of dispensaries to less than a dozen.

The House now seems poised to amend SB3 rather than go with a new, separate bill. But that is not set in stone.

There have been active medical marijuana bills in the Pa. House since 2009. Dozens of "information gathering" hearings have been held over the years but not a single House committee has actually voted on a bill.

Patients who already use underground cannabis and those who are hoping for something legal have been left in a terminal holding pattern. Some families have already relocated from Pennsylvania to Maine, Colorado and other states.

The current excuse from House leadership is the ongoing trench warfare over the budget between the GOP and Gov. Wolf. Because Wolf is supportive of the issue it is being held hostage.

There was significant momentum to medical marijuana in the last 24 months. But the prospect of having a true, working program has dwindled. By all but assuring that patients will get only processed products and no whole plant cannabis, there will be little incentive for most patients to register. Even if a bill is signed into law sometime in 2016 it could take 2 to 3 years for a program to be regulated and put into place.

By that time Pa. residents might be able to take a short drive to Ohio or even New Jersey and buy some fully legal buds.

We could legalize marijuana for medical and personal use as well as allow large scale hemp farming all at once. The combination would help severely ill Pennsylvanians, stop more than 17,500 arrests per year and net more than $500 million in new tax revenue.

Such a move could reform criminal justice, revitalize agriculture and provide real compassion. Far from a pipe dream, we are watching this strategy work in other states.

Chris Goldstein is associate editor of Freedom Leaf magazine and co-chair of PhillyNorml. Contact him at