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Sens. Paul, Franken Ask DOJ to Leave Hemp Industry Alone

In this March 24, 2017, photo, Eddie Smith poses next to bottles of hemp oil in his shop Into The Mystic in Mission, Kan. (Allison Long/The Kansas City Star via AP)

WASHINGTON – Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) have joined lawmakers from legal marijuana states in asking that Attorney General Jeff Sessions tone down his stance on the cannabis industry, so that hemp manufacturers and producers have better banking access.

The group, which included Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), wrote a letter to the Department of Justice on June 30, claiming that hemp businesses are being blocked from accessing bank accounts or are seeing their existing accounts closed. The lawmakers contend that the trend is a direct result of Sessions vowing to crack down on the marijuana industry and enforce federal guidelines under the Controlled Substances Act.

“While we do not believe the government should compel financial institutions to do business with the hemp industry, we are worried that the fear and uncertainty of government action – that the Department of Justice will roll back certain protections for legal industrial hemp entities – is causing financial institutions to close these accounts,” the letter reads.

Hemp is a cannabis plant that’s used in manufacturing and production of rope, textile, fuel, clothes, paper, food, automobile panels, animal bedding, soaps, lotions and oils, among other items.

The lawmakers noted that the Trump administration has made American farming and manufacturing jobs a priority and asked that Sessions follow the law as directed in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017. That bill includes language, known as the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment, that bars DOJ from using appropriated funds to pursue charges against marijuana businesses and users in legal states like Colorado, Oregon and Washington. A reversal in Sessions’ attitude, the lawmakers argue, would allow manufacturers and businesses to reach full potential under an industrial hemp pilot program included in the 2014 Farm Bill.

“Industrial hemp research and farming have opened up doors for students, farmers, and small businesses in our states,” the letter reads.

Anti-marijuana groups like Citizens Against the Legalization of Marijuana argue that relaxing standards on the hemp industry encourages illicit marijuana activity in legal states. The group’s founder, Scott Chipman, claimed in an interview Monday that the black market is as expansive as it’s ever been. There have been recent reports of large groups shipping marijuana illegally from states like Colorado. Chipman called it a “completely lawless industry,” without any medical, health or human safety protocols in place, even in legal jurisdictions.

“There’s a reason to be abundantly cautious about the hemp industry because every excuse known to man has been used to get around the Controlled Substances Act, including calling all marijuana hemp,” Chipman said. “Every business needs to be confirmed to be legitimately in the hemp industry and not in the marijuana industry.”

Citizens Against the Legalization of Marijuana has supported Sessions’ renewed push to crack down on illict drug activity, but Chipman said the attorney general has a full plate with the present opioid epidemic, which has resulted in staggering overdose death rates in states like West Virginia, New Hampshire, Kentucky, Ohio and Rhode Island. Chipman argued that the increase in opioid use is directly tied to the proliferation of the marijuana industry.

“This is about people wanting to live in an altered mental state,” Chipman said. “That is a serious concern. That should be a serious concern for the general public, that people want to be in a mentally impaired state, a mentally altered state for multiple hours of the week or multiple days of the week or continuously, all day. That should send a very strong concern for public health and safety in terms, including mental health, of our society.”

Chipman noted several celebrities have made news in recent years for quitting or scaling back cannabis use. Singer Lady Gaga in an interview with Attitude in 2013 cited productivity issues in her decision to stop smoking as many as 15 joints a day for pain relief. Actor Woody Harrelson said this year that his emotional unavailability in relationships inspired him to quit, and singer Miley Cyrus said earlier this year that she quit to improve focus while recording a new album.