By Maggie Jaqua

“Hemp hero,” “Cannabis champion,” “climate villain”... U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been called all this and more. Odds are, you have an opinion about the Republican senator from Kentucky, and regardless of whether that opinion is positive or not, one thing is certain: Mitch McConnell has done a tremendous amount to influence the natural products industry in 2019, and what he has set in motion will continue to impact this industry for a long time to come.
How We Selected the 2019 POTY

Planting the Seeds of Change

CBD is the buzzword of 2019—in part because of work McConnell started years ago. His first big move on hemp came in 2014, when he spearheaded a provision to legalize hemp pilot programs in the Farm Bill. In the years that followed, research demonstrated the potential of hemp as an agricultural commodity, and McConnell made another big move: In 2018, he introduced The Hemp Farming Act of 2018 to legalize hemp as an agricultural commodity and remove it from the list of controlled substances.

Praise was swift. “We’re grateful for the urgency that Senators McConnell, Wyden and Merkley are demonstrating on this issue,” said Eric Steenstra, President of Vote Hemp, after the legislation was introduced.

As the Farm Bill went through its paces toward passage, McConnell continued his push for approval. In a statement in 2018, McConnell said, “Last year alone, Kentucky hemp recorded more than $16 million in product sales through the state pilot program I previously secured, demonstrating that hemp holds great potential for the future of Kentucky agriculture. For far too long, the federal government has prevented most farmers from growing hemp. Although it was a foundational part of Kentucky’s heritage and today you can buy hemp products at stores across the country, most American farmers have been barred from planting it in their fields. I have heard from many Kentucky farmers who agree it’s time to remove the federal hurdles and give our state the opportunity to seize its full potential and once again become the national leader for hemp production. That is why I strongly advocated for this measure to be included in the Farm Bill, which will finally and fully legalize industrial hemp.”

Speaking at the Natural Products Hemp & CBD Summit in September 2018, Jonathan Miller, General Counsel to the U.S. Hemp Roundtable and a one-time Democratic candidate for governor, said, “I cross the country praising Mitch McConnell. McConnell has been extraordinary. He went from Darth Vader to My Hemp Hero. McConnell is very clued in to this. He’s going to be on top of it.”

Indeed, McConnell was on top of it. In December 2018, Congress passed the Farm Bill with bipartisan support. On December 20, President Donald Trump signed the bill into law—and legalized commercial production of hemp in the process, thanks to McConnell’s efforts. President Trump called it a “tremendous victory for the American farmer” and a rare bipartisan win.

At that moment, the bipartisanship had some feeling very optimistic. Take Jonathan Miller, writing an opinion piece for “I still strongly disagree with the Senate Majority Leader on any number of critical policy issues, from Brett Kavanaugh to climate change, from pre-existing conditions to budget-busting tax cuts. But when it comes to hemp, I’ve seen another side of Mitch McConnell. And it makes me feel just a little bit more bullish about our otherwise broken political the immutable swamp that is Washington, the relatively lightning speed of passage of this complex, nuanced and controversial subject could never have happened without the leadership of the Majority Leader” (1).

The Hemp Boom of 2019

While 2019 hasn’t exactly been a model year for bipartisanship overall (with some pointing fingers at McConnell as part of the problem), the end of “hemp prohibition” has been a boon for many in the industry. A look at the numbers:
  • The number of acres of hemp licensed across 34 states totaled 511,442 in 2019—more than quadruple the number of acres licensed from the previous year, according to the 2019 U.S. Hemp License Report by Vote Hemp.
  • The U.S. cannabis market could more than quadruple by 2025, according to a report from The Nielsen Company titled “Brace for Impact: U.S. CPG Cannabis sales to Rise by the Billions.” Nielsen predicts that the market could grow from $8 billion in 2018 to over $40 billion by 2025.
  • One in seven Americans use cannabidiol (CBD) or CBD-based products, according to a Gallup poll released in August 2019.
Still, there have been bumps in the road, including challenges faced by hemp farmers and producers trying to access capital and financial assistance as they look to explore hemp’s economic opportunities. McConnell took action in August—at his request, the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) issued guidance regarding changes in federal law related to hemp for federally issued credit unions looking to provide financial services to the hemp industry. McConnell said in a press release: “I’m delighted to hear the NCUA has answered my call on behalf of Kentuckians to ensure the legal hemp industry can access much-needed financial services…many of my constituents have told me about their difficulty receiving loans and other services that are necessary to successfully run a hemp business. Through this guidance by the NCUA, I look forward to more hemp farmers, processors and manufacturers starting or growing their operations with the help of Kentucky’s credit unions.”

Next, in September, McConnell introduced language in a Senate Agriculture Appropriations bill that would require the FDA to temporarily adopt an enforcement discretion policy for CBD. The Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) commended McConnell’s additions to the Senate Agriculture Appropriations bill, which provide $2 million to FDA to implement the provisions of the 2018 Farm Bill legalizing hemp derivatives and urge FDA to develop a legal pathway to market for them. A statement noted that CRN “strongly encourages FDA to exercise the statutory discretion provided to it in the FDCA to recognize a new legal category of CBD supplement.”

Steve Mister, CEO and President of CRN, said in the statement: “The instant FDA creates a legal CBD supplement market, there is a well-developed body of law and regulations governing dietary supplements that can and should be enforced. It won’t take much for FDA to have a big impact. Several high profile enforcement actions would change the calculation of risk by companies who may be skirting the requirements of the law, and can immediately change behavior. The FDA could literally take this action tomorrow and begin fully regulating the CBD supplement industry, and we implore them to do so. That’s the surest path to safety and innovation.”

Senator Mitch McConnell: Climate villain?

In February of this year, ABC News reported that environmental activists “swarmed” McConnell’s office, urging the Senator to take action on climate change and support a Green New Deal—a nonbinding resolution that aims to shift the U.S. economy from non-renewable to renewable energy sources, and virtually eliminate the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (2).

The activists didn’t get the outcome they were hoping for: In March, McConnell brought the resolution, which was spearheaded by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), to the Senate floor. No one voted for it—according to USA Today, 57 senators (including all Republicans and a handful of Democrats) voted against it; the remaining 43 (all Democrats) voted “present” as a protest (3). As USA Today explained, Democrats had asked the Republican leadership to schedule hearings with experts and build broad support for a bipartisan solution before going straight to the floor. But McConnell pushed ahead with the vote. And as The Hill reported, on the Senate floor, McConnell said the New Green Deal was an example of “garden-variety 20th-century socialism” (4). While McConnell said he does believe in human-caused climate change, he also believes the Green New Deal is “nonsense.”

McConnell’s name was linked to environmental issues again in August, when The Intercept reported that two Brazilian firms owned by a top donor to his campaign (as well as President Donald Trump’s campaign) were “significantly responsible” for the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest (5).

To say Mitch McConnell has his detractors in the eco-conscious space would be an understatement. One writer labeled him “America’s most insidious climate villain” and “the most dangerous climate denier serving in American politics today” (6).

More Work is Needed

WholeFoods asked industry leaders what they think of Senator McConnell as the 2019 Person of the Year—and several also weighed in on the actions they would like to see McConnell take in the future.

“McConnell has certainly been the Person of the Year for the hemp industry—and there isn’t a close second,” Jonathan Miller told WholeFoods. “His advocacy for the crop has been the single most important catalyst for the rapidly growing hemp and CBD industries. Without him, we’d likely be years behind in legalization from where we are now. And I say that from the perspective of a liberal Democrat who disagrees with him on most other issues. That’s how you know I’m telling the truth!”

Loren Israelsen, President, United Natural Products Alliance (UNPA), adds another perspective: “Sen. McConnell, with respect to the hemp issue, has been an Orrin Hatch in that he has advocated on behalf of his state, as well as a nascent industry with tremendous potential,” Israelsen told WholeFoods. “Because of the importance of the agricultural community in Kentucky and his seniority in the Senate, he took the lead on this issue. He’s an advocate and champion for hemp and the markets that will be created, and we look forward to when the full potential of the crop can be realized. But we need his help to create a legal pathway for hemp extracts and cannabinoids in dietary supplements, ideally before this congressional session adjourns.”

Expanding on that, Israelsen explains, “The language in the 2018 farm bill related to hemp removed the onerous DEA Schedule 1 status and opened the door for lawful cultivation of the crop, but it did not create a lawful status for hemp extract ingredients and products as foods or supplements. It’s critical that Congress, working with FDA, create a regulatory pathway for these products in light of clear consumer demand and a marketplace that has gotten ahead of the regulatory structure. Sen. McConnell, in his role as the Senate Majority Leader, is in the best possible position to help make that happen.”

CRN’s Mister notes that, due to his connection to hemp and CBD, McConnell is “an excellent choice” for Person of the Year. He also notes that there is more work to be done. “We have been working closely with McConnell’s office this year, and I think they are really committed to making this a viable ingredient and a very robust marketplace,” Mister added. “He’s got farmers there in Kentucky who are trying to transition out of tobacco into other things, and hemp seems like it is an ingredient that really has the potential to take off and could be a great alternative for those farmers.”

That said, Mister adds, if there is anything that one might say McConnell’s office could have done differently, it would be to not make one key assumption: “They assumed that once they passed the Farm Bill, that FDA would go along with that and would see what this is trying to accomplish. But of course the Farm Bill expressly reserved a legal authority to FDA for products under their jurisdiction, and FDA has been a slow player in all of this—and maybe not the enthusiastic player that McConnell’s office thought they would be. And so we’ve spent all year, and I’m not sure that we’re any further along than we were in December with FDA dragging its feet.” (For more on FDA’s stance, go here.)

The negative to this, Mister maintains: “As FDA is dragging its feet, the market is flooded with CBD products anyway, many of which do not meet basic regulatory requirements for matching what is in the product to what’s on the label, [or] have adverse event reporting, and all those sorts of things. So I think that is his challenge going forward—how to get FDA to get its hands around this marketplace and create a regulatory framework so consumers can have confidence in the products. That’s what’s missing, and that’s absolutely necessary if there is going to be the kind of viable marketplace that he envisioned.”

Mister adds that McConnell’s office will either keep nudging FDA to use its discretion into a rulemaking, or if they won’t: ”I think the Senator’s office is preparing to just do this by legislation instead. They have been very good to work with and certainly understand the issues—and they understand the sense of urgency around this before someone gets hurt and the marketplace implodes because consumers no longer trust it. That’s what we want to prevent.”

Also looking to the future, Dr. Daniel Fabricant, President and CEO of the Natural Products Association (NPA), told WholeFoods: “The Natural Products Association has welcomed our work with Senator McConnell and leaders in Congress to press FDA to set standards for the growing CBD and hemp markets, as well as maintaining rules for dietary supplements and natural products. The future of the U.S. hemp industry and the farmers and producers who provide it are directly tied to smart regulations for CBD, which includes FDA establishing a safe level of consumption so consumers are protected. NPA is pleased to be the only association to have helped secure legislative language to move this important process forward.” NPA also noted that the association supports legislation currently under consideration in the U.S. Senate that would require the FDA, on an expedited basis, to perform a Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE) and set a safe level of CBD for consumers to use each day.

While McConnell has certainly played a big part in the events of the year, Karen Howard, CEO and Executive Director of the Organic & Natural Health Association (O&N), looks beyond his actions. “Sometimes, oftentimes, change is driven by constituent influence on the Hill,” Howard says. “This is fortunate. Most of the time, change is driven by special interests. That’s good, when it’s our interests. More times than not we are out spent, out spun, and in the end have a high risk for being undone. Occasionally there is an influential leader in Congress with a vision that encompasses interests larger than that of constituency or commerce. This is not Senator McConnell, or any one particular Member of Congress. Yes, he is the champion of hemp, and more importantly hemp farmers. Yes, he has supported organic. Yes, he also supports fossil fuels. And yes, hemp has definitely influenced our industry, though I am not sure it is for the best. After years of great leadership on the Hill, commitment by the founders of this industry and dogged work to ensure adherence to the regulatory requirements for dietary supplements, consumers are now victim to the wiles of CBD wannabes and their rabid claims, while retailers are left stranded by the flight of merchant vendors to far less greener pastures for fear of legal retribution. This is an unintended consequence of wanting to spark a bonanza for small farmers to be sure, but the consequences imperil the reputation of this industry as a whole. My vote goes to DSHEA@25. Its influence is what is driving consumers to use CBD, building the value of the industry, shaping the outcome of this quagmire, and hopefully forcing this genie into a regulatory box. DSHEA@25 is the influencer of this industry and we are the caregivers that give it voice on Capitol Hill. As caretakers, we’ll take every bit of support we can find to nurture, including that of Senator McConnell.” WF

UNPA Points to Leaders on the Hill Throughout History

Senator Mitch McConnell is a major player of 2019, but UNPA’s Loren Israelsen points to those who paved the way before him. “A bit of historical context: As a potential advocate for the supplement industry, Sen. McConnell would not be alone,” Israelsen says. “There have been four other powerful senior senators, each with an interest in the natural health field, that have been responsible for creating specific protections for our industry. Sen. McConnell would be the fifth. That list includes Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin and Sen. Royal Copeland of New York. Sens. Hatch and Harkin, of course, are champions of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act [DSHEA] and worked to defend and bolster this landmark law over the 25 years that it has been in effect.

“Many people may not remember that the Proxmire Amendment of 1976 protected nutrients from becoming drugs and blocked FDA from imposing potency limits on vitamins and minerals,” Israelsen continues. “And going back to 1938, Sen. Royal Copeland, an academic and homeopathic physician, was a principal author of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which, in addition to giving authority to FDA to oversee the safety of food, drugs, medical devices and cosmetics, carved out a safe harbor for homeopathics, that they would be permitted to be sold as drugs without the proof of safety and efficacy, because of the nature of the products. Without him, homeopathic products would likely have been long gone.”
  1. Jonathan Miller, "Opinion: McConnell's legacy:Transforming Hemp," Posted 12/20/18. Accessed 11/1/19.
  2. Annika Merrilees, "Young climate activists swarm Mitch McConnell's Office," Posted 2/25/19. Accessed 11/1/19.
  3. Ledyard King, "Green New Deal Dies in Senate and Democrats Helped Kill It," Posted 3/26/19. Accessed 11/1/19.
  4. Jordain Carney, "McConnell tees up vote on Green New Deal," Posted 3/14/19. Accessed 11/1/19.
  5. Ryan Grim, "A Top Financier of Trump and McConnell is a Driving Force Behind Amazon Deforestation," Posted 8/27/19. Accessed 11/1/19.
  6. "The Eco-Conscious Corporations Backing America's Most Insidious Climate Villain," Posted 10/24/19. Accessed 11/1/19.