By TIM THORNBERRY
FRANKFORT, Ky. — Last November, the Kentucky Hemp Commission began meetings for the first time in a decade, with the idea of getting legislation passed during the General Assembly session that would allow the growth once again of industrial hemp, if the federal government removes restrictions.
That idea is halfway home, as the state Senate passed it by a wide margin. The vote was 31-6. Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said the bill is about creating jobs and providing another crop for farmers.
“I am extremely proud of the Kentucky state Senate for its commitment to job creation in Kentucky,” he said after the vote. “Today’s bipartisan vote is the first step toward more opportunities for our farmers and jobs for Kentuckians.”
The vote came on the heels of a Harper Polling survey that showed 65 percent of likely voters believe industrial hemp is not a drug and that legalizing the crop would create jobs, according to information provided by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture (KDA).
Comer, who has been to all 120 counties over the past year, said everywhere he has been, everyone has said jobs need to be created in this state. The survey also noted only 19 percent believe legalizing hemp would hurt marijuana eradication efforts, with 16 percent believing the issue needs further study.
The bigger hurdle now appears to be in the state House, where a similar bill (HB 33) has been filed. House Speaker Greg Stumbo (D-Prestonburg) has said those supporting the initiative haven’t proven there is a viable market for it.
House Agriculture and Small Business Committee Chair Rep. Tom McKee (D-Cynthiana) said there are many questions to be answered about raising hemp, but his committee is open to looking at new crops and new profit potential for state farmers. The committee was tentatively scheduled to hear the bill at its regularly scheduled Wednesday meeting today.
Comer met with Stumbo and McKee last week. He said opponents to the bill started out being worried about law enforcement concerns, but now their thoughts have turned to how much of an economic impact it would really have.
“We’re bringing in people that have expressed an interest in purchasing the hemp and processing the hemp, making an investment in Kentucky and creating jobs,” Comer said.
The House bill has a significant difference from SB 50 in that law enforcement would provide regulation of the crop. The Senate bill allows for KDA to be the regulatory agent, something Comer said would cost much less money.
“We can do it for 1 percent of the cost that it would cost the state police, so we want SB 50 instead of HB 33. It won’t be that big of an expense to us and we won’t ask for more money,” he said.
Comer is “cautiously optimistic” about the meetings and said there aren’t many issues that will get through this session of the General Assembly – but hemp is one that does have a chance. He also said he doesn’t know how many jobs the initiative could create, but it has the potential to start an industry in Kentucky and would help farmers and create manufacturing jobs.
“I believe this is something (lawmakers) are going to have to vote on. This is an easy bill,” Comer said. “It has no fiscal impact. It doesn’t legalize hemp, it just sets up the regulatory framework.”
The federal government has to lift the restrictions on growing the plant before any state can legally produce it.
On Feb. 14, Kentucky U.S. Sens. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell, both Republicans, joined with Oregon Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden to introduce the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013.
The federal bill would remove hemp from the Schedule I controlled substance list under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, and would define it as a non-drug so long as it contains less than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), according to information released by McConnell’s office.
“I am proud to introduce legislation with my friend Rand Paul that will allow Kentucky farmers to harness the economic potential that industrial hemp can provide,” McConnell said. “During these tough economic times, this legislation has the potential to create jobs and provide a boost to Kentucky’s economy and to our farmers and their families.”
Paul said the Act paves the way to creating jobs for Kentucky. “Allowing American farmers to cultivate industrial hemp and benefit from its many uses will boost our state’s economy and bring much-needed jobs in the agriculture community,” he said.
Wyden said, unfortunately, there are some “dumb” regulations hurting economic growth and job creation, and the ban on growing industrial hemp is certainly among them.
“The opportunities for American farmers and businesses are obvious here. It’s time to boost revenues for farmers and reduce the costs for the businesses around the country that use hemp,” he said.
The legislation cosponsored by Paul and McConnell is a companion bill to HR 525, introduced two weeks ago in the U.S. House with 28 original cosponsors. Comer said if the state passes his bill, a waiver will be sought from the federal government to allow Kentucky to be first to grow the crop.
- He noted the most promising use of hemp in Kentucky is from the automotive industry. Many auto manufacturers have used composite materials containing hemp for more than a decade.