By TIM THORNBERRY
FRANKFORT, Ky. — Since taking office more than a year ago, Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer has left no doubt where he stands on bringing industrial hemp back as a crop – he has traveled the entire state, saying hemp could revitalize much of the rural economy, especially in central and eastern Kentucky.
The issue has now been taken to the halls of the General Assembly, as bills have been introduced in both the House and Senate that would allow farmers in Kentucky to raise the crop once again in the event federal restrictions are lifted. State Democrats and Republicans have shown signs of growing support for the legalization of industrial hemp over the last few years.
Some feds OK with this hemp
That support has also come from Kentucky’s Congressional delegation, including U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat, and Republican Reps. Thomas Massie and Andy Barr and Republican freshman Sen. Rand Paul, who joined Comer last August at the Kentucky State Fair to announce support for the initiative.
Recently, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has voiced its support for the legislation, as well. A statement on the organization’s website read: “The Chamber’s policy council and board of directors reviewed the issue, considered arguments for and against supporting legislation.
“After a lengthy discussion with Commissioner Comer and further discussion among the board members, the Kentucky Chamber Board adopted the following position with regard to industrial hemp production:
“The Kentucky Chamber supports exploring the commercialization of industrial hemp in Kentucky. Provided there is an adequate regulatory framework adopted to oversee the production and cultivation of industrial hemp, the Chamber supports legislation to position Kentucky as a leader in the production and commercialization of industrial hemp.”
Comer said the organization’s support demonstrates hemp is more than just an ag issue. “We are elated that the Chamber of Commerce came out in support of it, so I think that gives a lot of credibility from a group not affiliated with agriculture but its primary purpose is economic development,” he explained.
“It shows that bill has economic development potentials and goes way outside the realm of agriculture.”
But the state’s most recognized and longest-serving Congressional officials have taken separate sides in the issue. U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) released a statement last week throwing his support behind industrial hemp: “After long discussions with Senator Rand Paul and Commissioner James Comer on the economic benefits of industrialized hemp, I am convinced that allowing its production will be a positive development for Kentucky’s farm families and economy.
“Commissioner Comer has assured me that his office is committed to pursuing industrialized hemp production in a way that does not compromise Kentucky law enforcement’s marijuana eradication efforts, or in any way promote illegal drug use. The utilization of hemp to produce everything from clothing to paper is real and if there is a capacity to center a new domestic industry in Kentucky that will create jobs in these difficult economic times, that sounds like a good thing to me.”
The fact that hemp and marijuana are of the same plant species has kept it on a list of controlled substances and illegal to grow. That is one reason Kentucky’s longest-serving Republican member of the U.S. House and Chair of its Appropriations Committee, Rep. Hal Rogers, declined support for the issue.
In a statement released by his office after the McConnell statement, Rogers said more important issues need attention: “I have yet to be convinced Kentucky needs a pathway for industrial hemp. My first concern is the challenge facing our thinly stretched marijuana eradication teams and law enforcement in visually distinguishing the two plants. This confusion and potential comingling lends itself to an easier path for illegal marijuana growth in the Commonwealth.
“Secondly, there appears little evidence to date that hemp will be an economic boon for Kentucky when the USDA describes the hemp market as ‘small (and) thin.’ Finally, we need to focus on more important issues like enacting pension reform, getting our federal deficits under control and tackling the existing drug epidemic.”
Law enforcement opposed
Law enforcement agencies remain one of the main opponents to any legislation that would allow farmers to produce a plant that once played a major role in Kentucky agriculture. The Kentucky Narcotic Officers Assoc. voted unanimously to oppose hemp legislation during its annual meeting held late last year.
“There is no economically sound or environmentally reasonable justification for the reintroduction and legalization of cannabis hemp cultivation,” began a lengthy statement from the organization.
That statement also challenged the huge financial impact advocates say hemp would provide as false, as well as any claim that hemp is environmentally friendly.
Brian Furnish is a tobacco farmer, former general manager of the Burley Tobacco Cooperative and president of his own company, the International Tobacco Trading Group. He said in fact, hemp, which grows well here, is a plant that will help clean up the soil. Studies have suggested it has the ability to detoxify soil.
David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, a $50 million-a-year company that makes natural soap products and uses imported hemp seed oil, said the United States would have some catching up to do, but that legalizing hemp could create a huge economic shot in the arm.
“I would say it’s in the tens of millions of dollars in direct raw materials, and the market is growing rapidly,” he added.
A state Senate Ag Committee hearing is scheduled for Feb. 11 in Frankfort. Yarmuth and Massie are confirmed to testify alongside Paul and Comer in support of Senate Bill 50, state Sen. Paul Hornback’s (R-Shelbyville) legislation on industrial hemp, according to information from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
“When the most powerful Republican in the country calls to discuss your issue, that’s a good day on the job,” Comer said. “Leader McConnell’s support adds immeasurable strength to our efforts to bring good jobs to Kentucky.
“Our federal delegation is showing tremendous leadership. They recognize this is not a partisan issue. It’s about jobs. And we will continue to push forward to make sure Kentucky is first in line for them.”