By TIM THORNBERRY
FRANKFORT, Ky. — It came down to the final hours of the General Assembly session, but state lawmakers finally passed Senate Bill 50 that will give Kentucky an administrative framework for growing industrial hemp.
The bill, which passed the full state Senate and the House Agriculture and Small Business Committee with overwhelming support, seemed doomed once it reached the House floor. There, Speaker Greg Stumbo (D-Prestonburg) stopped action on the bill, citing many reasons.
But House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins (D-Sandy Hook) stepped in, offering an amended version just days before the session was scheduled to end. Some of its provisions were not well received by supporters but he and S.B. 50 sponsor Sen. Paul Hornback (R-Shelbyville) hammered out compromises enabling passage.
Hornback said had it not been for Adkins, getting passage would have been more difficult. “I think without his involvement from the House side, I think it would have had a very difficult time,” he added.
Despite compromises to the original bill, Hornback was pleased with the way it passed.
“I wanted to make sure the (hemp) commission stayed strong. The goal of the commission was to promote hemp and try to make a go of it if it gets legalized in the state,” he said. “I think we are set to move forward on it with the framework in place.”
Under provisions of the bill, the Kentucky Hemp Commission stays attached to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and the head of the commission will be elected by the board members. Currently the commissioner of agriculture is designated as the chair.
Under the first amended version presented by Adkins, the Kentucky State Police (KSP) commissioner would have served in that capacity. Hornback said when negotiations began he told House leadership that was a “non-starter” he could not abide.
KSP Commissioner Rodney Brewer has publicly come out against growing hemp, saying it would be too hard to distinguish it from marijuana. “You’ve got to have somebody in there that is committed to it and is willing to push it forward … and that’s why I wasn’t at all in favor of it,” Hornback said.
The original amended version also called for a five-year study to be conducted by the University of Kentucky (UK). Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said waiting for it would put Kentucky at the end of the line in production instead of first place with an intact S.B. 50 and a waiver from the government allowing the state to begin growing hemp sooner rather than later.
The compromise allows for such a study with demonstration plots by UK or any other university that wants to participate. But if at any time during that five-year period the ban against growing hemp is lifted by the federal government, Kentucky can begin production rather than follow through with those studies. The bill also calls for KSP to be the agency to conduct background checks on would-be producers.
The bill passed the House by an 88-4 margin and immediately went back to the Senate where it passed 35-1.
“This historic legislation puts Kentucky in position to be first in line if and when the federal government legalizes production of industrial hemp,” Comer said after the vote. “By passing this bill, the General Assembly has signaled that Kentucky is serious about restoring industrial hemp production to the Commonwealth and doing it in the right way.
“That will give Kentucky’s Congressional delegation more leverage when they seek a federal waiver allowing Kentucky farmers to grow hemp.”
The bill has moved to Gov. Steve Beshear’s desk. He has voiced apprehension of such a bill in the past because of concerns raised by law enforcement.
“I don’t know whether the Governor will sign it or choose just to not sign it, but I don’t expect him to veto it. So I think we’ll get that done, then we’ll try to go to Washington and see it we can get it passed there,” Comer said.
He plans to lead a delegation to Washington within months to try and gain a waiver from federal officials. “I will work closely with Senators Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell and Representatives John Yarmuth and Thomas Massie to put Kentucky first in line if and when the federal government allows industrial hemp production,” Comer said hours after the General Assembly passed S.B. 50.
“We are closer to our goal of bringing hemp back to Kentucky than we have been in more than 60 years, and our work continues.”
Hornback hopes the federal government sees an opportunity in allowing hemp to once again be grown here, as well as in the rest of the country.
“I hope Kentucky leads that charge, but I hope they see the opportunity to grow jobs and bring in a new industry not only for Kentucky but for the entire U.S.,” he explained.
With $419 million worth of hemp products sold in this country last year, Hornback said there is no reason not to be producing it here.