By TIM THORNBERRY
FRANKFORT, Ky. — The idea of hemp being grown in Kentucky has received much airplay at a time when redistricting and pension reform were tops on the General Assembly’s to-do list before the session began.
But it has been Senate Bill 50 grabbing the headlines. State Sen. Paul Hornback (R-Shelbyville), a farmer from Shelby County, introduced the bill and saw it sail through the Senate with some discussion. Last week the bill’s next stop came in front of the House Agriculture and Small Business Committee.
There, it met more discussion and ended without a vote, something that outraged proponents. State Rep. Tom McKee (D-Cynthiana), the committee chair, has borne the brunt of the criticism for calling the proceedings out of order after a motion had been made to vote on the bill.
Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who has pushed hard to get the legislation passed, said he was disappointed in McKee. “The testimony … was overwhelmingly in favor of SB 50, and we clearly had the votes to pass this bill. This is a perfect example of everything wrong with Frankfort right now,” he said.
But McKee said he clearly stated when the meeting began, the bill would be for discussion only and not for a vote. That is the reason he cited the motion as being out of order.
“(Discussion) may include SB 50 House Committee Substitute for possible action today,” McKee said recounting his instructions before the meeting.
It is the prerogative of a committee chair to call for a vote after a discussion, but that is not something McKee said he did. That caused much of the debate that occurred during and after the meeting.
“In our committee sub, we were going to call for the University of Kentucky (UK) Agricultural Experiment Station, if they could possibly get the permits, to grow as much as 10 acres this year. We put an emergency clause in so it could be done this year. We thought that was good. We did have a rather extensive research project attached to it and we thought that was good,” said McKee. “We thought we could improve (the bill) a little bit.”
But supporters want to see the bill passed as-is. Many of those were on hand for a press conference convened by Comer the day after the committee hearing. It included Hornback, State Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown) and Sen. Robin Webb (D-Grayson), among others.
Brian Furnish, a member of the Kentucky Hemp Commission, a farmer, former general manager of the Burley Tobacco Cooperative and current president of his own company, the International Tobacco Trading Group, was also on hand. He said the initiative has become a political issue opposed by leading state Democrats.
“We’re playing politics with it and it’s really not a political issue,” he said. “It’s really about setting up a framework that, if the federal government allows it, we’re ready to move forward.”
Furnish also said UK has already offered to do a study of the issue at no cost to the Hemp Commission.
Hornback said during the press conference he hasn’t given up. “We know it’s the right thing to do. We know it’s a bipartisan issue and we know that the people of Kentucky are behind it,” he said. “I’m very hopeful there’s an up or down vote on SB 50 the way it is.”
There have been in the past many attempts to pass some form of legislation related to industrial hemp, the latest coming last year when Rep. Richard Henderson (D-Mt. Sterling) introduced a bill to allow it. But the issue has had more than a decade of support from both parties and both legislative chambers at one point or another.
“In 2001 then-Representative Joe Barrows sponsored legislation, HB 100, that set forth the framework for all of our hemp rules and said should the federal regulation be lifted, that we will follow federal regulations, and I voted for that,” said McKee.
He added he is very much in favor of an industrial hemp bill, but not for legalization of marijuana. Hemp is of the same plant species as marijuana and does contain very low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient that produces a “high,” causing the plant to be placed on the Drug Enforcement Agency’s list of controlled substances. Marijuana contains much higher levels of THC.
Kentucky State Police have contended it is possible marijuana growers would try to hide their illegal plants in legal hemp fields because the two plants look so much alike. McKee said he would like to see those concerns addressed.
“I think in the period of time while we are waiting to hopefully get permits to grow it, that we will be able to see the commissioner of the State Police and the commissioner of agriculture sit down and see if they can work and find some common ground,” he said.
McKee said he will call the bill up as it is for a vote in the next House Ag Committee meeting, March 6. “At this point and unless something changes, we’ll send it out of the committee, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it passed unanimously. I’m going to vote for it.”
Comer said last week, “This is just a little glitch. We’ll get over it and hopefully we can get this bill passed, and we can help our farmers in Kentucky and we can create jobs for Kentuckians.”
McKee said, “The Ag Commissioner has said this will produce thousands of jobs and thousands of acres of hemp, which will be profitable for our farmers, and we don’t want to stand in the way of that.”