By any measure, the U.S. hemp industry is playing a hot hand these days.
Retail sales of hemp products jumped by a whopping 24 percent last year, with Americans gobbling up a record amount of food, lotions, soaps, clothing, paper products and even auto parts made from hemp fiber.
While growing hemp remains illegal as a drug banned by the federal government, experimental plots have been planted in Kentucky and Colorado since Congress approved them for research purposes earlier this year.
And a bipartisan coalition is growing, with Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky boasting last year that he owns a hemp shirt and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack suggesting in March that Ukraine might ultimately provide the United States with a good supply of industrial hemp seeds.
On Thursday, the hemp industry showed its new muscle on Capitol Hill, convincing the Senate Appropriations Committee to approve a plan that would block federal agencies from spending any money to enforce anti-hemp laws in states that have received permission to grow the plant. The vote, on an amendment to a larger spending bill, was 22-8.
The proposal emerged after the Drug Enforcement Administration last month seized a shipment of Italian hemp seeds destined for Kentucky.
Eventually, the state got its seeds back, but only after filing a lawsuit against the federal government.
“DEA is a bit of a lost rogue agency. They just don’t get it,” said Eric Steenstra, the executive director of the Hemp Industries Association, a trade group that represents hundreds of hemp businesses. “They’ve been continuing to sort of have a hard time accepting the new reality.”