By ARIAN CAMPO-FLORES
Like many farmers in Kentucky, Brian Furnish has for years struggled to find crops to replace tobacco.
He thinks he has one candidate: industrial hemp, the cousin of marijuana used to make everything from cosmetics to car parts. It grows well in small plots, and demand for some hemp-based products is on the rise. The problem is that federal law makes it virtually impossible to grow the crop in the U.S.
David Kasnic for The Wall Street JournalBrian Furnish, a farmer in Cynthiana, Ky., grows tobacco, corn, wheat and hay, and says he would further diversify into hemp if it were legalized.
"We grew it here for years until the '50s," when it was still permitted, said Mr. Furnish, 37 years old. "I don't see any reason why we couldn't again."
He can take heart from efforts gathering steam from a wide political spectrum in Congress to again authorize hemp production. U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie (R., Ky.) introduced a bill in the House on Wednesday that would exclude hemp from the federal drug law that now lumps it together with marijuana. U.S. Sens. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) and Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) say they plan to file similar legislation in the Senate, where Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) last week said for the first time that he supported growing the crop.
Meanwhile, pro-hemp legislative measures have been introduced or carried over this year in seven states. Several states have already removed barriers to hemp production. "We've never had a better situation than we do right now," said Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, a not-for-profit advocacy group.
Significant obstacles remain. Previous pro-hemp bills in Congress went nowhere. And the White House has taken a dim view of the crop. "Hemp and marijuana are part of the same species of cannabis plant," wrote Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, last year. He added that hemp contains tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana.
Yet proponents point out the amount of THC in hemp is minimal—usually less than 1%, which is considered the threshold for potentially generating a high, according to researchers. By comparison, THC levels in marijuana average 10% and can reach 30% or more. Hemp legislation in the U.S., as well as in European countries where growing it is legal, usually sets the ceiling for THC content at 0.3%.
Farmers cultivated hemp legally throughout much of America's history. By the late 1950s, production ceased, partly as a result of high taxes imposed by the federal government.
The 1970 Controlled Substances Act made no distinction between varieties of cannabis. So while it isn't illegal to grow hemp, a farmer must register with the Drug Enforcement Administration, which Mr. Steenstra said means prohibitively expensive security requirements.
Still, it is legal to import hemp-based products—such as shirts and carpeting—and components of the plant, like hemp oil, used to make beauty products. Industry groups estimate that retail sales of hemp-based products in the U.S. exceed $300 million a year.
The size of that market has enticed advocates in Kentucky, which was a leading hemp producer in the 1800s. Agriculture Commissioner James Comer is championing a bill that would set up a regulatory framework for hemp if the federal government eliminates barriers to production. It is similar to the laws in the eight states that have authorized hemp growing, though all these measures still face the prohibitions under federal law.
"We could be the Silicon Valley for industrial hemp manufacturing," he said. Several makers of hemp-based products have expressed interest in buying from Kentucky farmers, he said.
Among them is Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, an Escondido, Calif., company that imports about 20 tons of hemp oil a year from Canada. "We want to buy from American farmers," said President David Bronner.
The Kentucky effort has drawn support from both tea-party groups and liberals, the latter because the crop is considered sustainable. "People on the right like it because it's a liberty issue," said Mr. Comer, a Republican. And "people on the left like it because it's a green crop."
But some law-enforcement groups argue hemp looks similar to marijuana, which would make it a challenge to conduct aerial surveillance aimed at eradicating pot. "Hemp farming would greatly complicate drug law enforcement activities," the Kentucky Narcotic Officers' Association wrote last November.
Analysts say the measure has a decent chance of passage in the state Senate but faces a steeper climb in Kentucky's House, where Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat, has expressed reservations.
Write to Arian Campo-Flores at email@example.com