The federal government is ready to let farmers grow cannabis — at least the kind that can't get people high.
Hemp — marijuana's non-intoxicating cousin that's used to make everything from clothing to cooking oil — could soon be cultivated in 10 states under a federal farm bill agreement reached Monday that allows the establishment of pilot growing programs.
The plant's return to legitimacy could clear the way for U.S. farmers to compete in an industry dominated by China. Even though it hasn't been grown in the United States, the country is one of the fastest-growing hemp markets.
In 2011, the United States imported $11.5 million worth of hemp products, up from $1.4 million in 2000. Most of that growth was seen in hemp seed and hemp oil, which finds its way into granola bars and other products.
"This is big," said Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, a group that advocates for the plant's legal cultivation. "We've been pushing for this a long time."
Legalized growing of hemp had congressional allies from both ends of the political spectrum. Democrats from marijuana-friendly states have pushed to legalize hemp cultivation, as have Republicans from states where the fibrous plant could be a profitable new crop.
"We are laying the groundwork for a new commodity market for Kentucky farmers," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement. McConnell was a lead negotiator on the inclusion of hemp in the farm bill.
The full House and Senate still must approve the bill.