Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told hemp advocates in his home state of Kentucky that he will introduce legislation to legalize the crop as an agricultural commodity.
The versatile crop has been grown on an experimental basis in a number of states in recent years.
Kentucky has been at the forefront of hemp's comeback. Kentucky agriculture officials recently approved more than 12,000 acres to be grown in the state this year, and 57 Kentucky processors are helping turn the raw product into a multitude of products.
Growing hemp without a federal permit has long been banned due to its classification as a controlled substance related to marijuana. Hemp and marijuana are the same species, but hemp has a negligible amount of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.
Hemp got a limited reprieve with the 2014 federal Farm Bill, which allows state agriculture departments to designate hemp projects for research and development. So far, 34 states have authorized hemp research, while actual production occurred in 19 states last year. Hemp production totaled 25,541 acres in 2017, more than double the 2016 output.
McConnell acknowledged there was "some queasiness" about hemp in 2014 when federal lawmakers cleared the way for states to regulate it for research and pilot programs. There is much broader understanding now that hemp is a "totally different" plant than its illicit cousin, he said.
"I think we've worked our way through the education process of making sure everybody understands this is really a different plant," the Republican leader said.
McConnell said he plans to have those discussions with Attorney General Jeff Sessions to emphasize the differences between the plants.
The Department of Justice's press office declined to comment to the Associated Press on McConnell's pending legislation.
McConnell said his bill will attract a bipartisan group of co-sponsors. He said the measure would allow states to have primary regulatory oversight of hemp production if they submit plans to federal officials outlining how they would monitor production.
"We're going to give it everything we've got to pull it off," he said.