By Keith Speights

Will the U.S. legalize marijuana? Although 33 states have legalized medical cannabis and 10 have also legalized recreational pot, marijuana remains illegal at the federal level. But legislation is moving through the U.S. Congress that would change federal laws to recognize individual states' authority to enforce their own marijuana laws.

You can pretty much count on the marijuana legalization bill passing in the House of Representatives. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), a sponsor of the bill, thinks that the votes needed to pass the legislation in the Senate are there. He also has stated that President Trump supports the effort.

But don't put the cart before the horse. There's a four-letter word that could stand in the way of U.S. marijuana legalization. And that word is spelled h-e-m-p.

Hemp, like marijuana, comes from the cannabis plant. A key difference is that hemp contains very low levels of THC -- the primary psychoactive ingredient in cannabis -- while marijuana contains a significant amount of THC. Because of this difference, a person can get high from using marijuana but not from consuming hemp.

This major chemical difference helped clear the way for U.S. legalization of hemp in December 2018. The 2018 farm bill that included language making hemp legal in the U.S. received overwhelming bipartisan support in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

One of the biggest cheerleaders for the farm bill was Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The senator used his position as Senate majority leader to help ensure that hemp legalization was included in the farm bill and was instrumental in pushing the bill across the finish line.

McConnell's home state of Kentucky has become a hotbed for hemp production. The senator stated in an interview last year that hemp "could be big" for his state. McConnell added, "I don't know how big this can become, but I know we're ahead of everybody else. We're not afraid of the competition." 

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