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GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell supports bill to legalize hemp production

Toby Jorrin / AFP - Getty Images, file

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), accompanied by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), speaks at the White House after meeting with US President Barack Obama on November 16, 2012 in Washington,DC.

The federal government currently puts hemp in the same category of illegal drug as heroin, LSD and ecstasy -- but the Senate's top Republican wants to change that.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R - Ky., joined forces Thursday with a pair of West Coast Democrats -- Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley -- to cosponsor a bill that would allow American farmers to grow hemp without fear of punishment. Also on board is libertarian Rand Paul, McConnell's fellow Republican Bluegrass State senator.

“I am proud to introduce legislation with my friend Rand Paul that will allow Kentucky farmers to harness the economic potential that industrial hemp can provide,” McConnell said in a statement Thursday. "During these tough economic times, this legislation has the potential to create jobs and provide a boost to Kentucky’s economy and to our farmers and their families."

The debate over legalization of hemp is contentious in Kentucky. The Chamber of Commerce supports legalization, but some law enforcement groups say it is a step that could lead to the legalization of marijuana.

McConnell's move follows action in the Kentucky state Senate, which voted Thursday to legalize hemp production there -- if the federal government also decrees that it's legal. Oregon has approved hemp production, but farmers can still be prosecuted under federal law.

Hemp is a variety of Cannabis sativa, the plant species that also produces marijuana. McConnell wants to legalize so-called industrial hemp, which contains a much smaller amount of THC, the chemical that produces marijuana's high. 

Proponents of industrial hemp tout its many legal uses, such as in soap, cosmetics, and rope for sailboats and other watercraft. Farmers say hemp twine is much stronger than other rope used to bind bales of hay. Toyota -- which builds Camrys in Kentucky -- has spoken in favor of hemp legalization, saying they want to use the fibers in car panels and insulation. 

Typically, the plants that make great industrial hemp make less potent marijuana. Plants that make great pot don't usually produce the strongest industrial fibers.