An eccentric coalition of libertarians, environmentalists, and GOP lawmakers are promoting the virtues of the useful weed for rural and urban areas alike. But there’s one big legal hurdle.
Every weekday, Chad Rosen drives from his farm in rural New Castle, Kentucky, a 200-year-old town with fewer than 1,000 residents and five Baptist churches, to a squat manufacturing facility east of downtown Louisville. The 40-minute drive crosses Kentucky’s major red-blue divide: Where Rosen lives, in Henry County, 69 percent of his neighbors voted for Trump; only the state’s two largest cities, Louisville and Lexington, went for Hillary Clinton.
Rosen’s job represents a slender thread of economic connection that links those sides: the state’s nascent hemp industry. His company, Victory Hemp Foods, processes Kentucky’s newest cash crop into nutty oils, seeds, and protein powders. In three years, Rosen’s hemp-based product line has grown from a few stores to a shelf presence in 75 markets statewide, including Whole Foods, Kroger, and boutique nutritional shops.
He’s also the president of the Kentucky Hemp Industries Association, which helped to bring more than 300 entrepreneurs and farmers to Lexington in September for a national gathering of hemp businesses. (Disclosure: The Abell Foundation covered my expenses to attend this event, and also sponsored my work for this report.) Rosen leads a coalition of strange bedfellows that includes Sierra Club members, Tea Party enthusiasts, university researchers, and lawmakers from both parties who are trying to coax the industry out from decades of legal limbo. In July, Kentucky Congressman James Comer—a former state agriculture commissioner who ran and won on his pro-hemp record—and Rep. Thomas Massie, both Republicans, joined Colorado Democrat Jared Polis and Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte to sponsor legislation removing hemp from the feds’ list of illegal Schedule 1 drugs, where it has resided, along with cocaine and heroin, since the Nixon Administration.