By TIM THORNBERRY
FRANKFORT, Ky. — For the first time in a decade, the Kentucky Hemp Commission convened at the state agriculture commissioner’s office Nov. 14. The commission was originally created by statute in 2001 to explore the possibilities of raising a legal hemp crop in Kentucky and the economic impact it would have.
Numerous attempts by various state lawmakers over the last 10 years have proven futile in getting any kind of bill passed. With the legalization of industrial hemp high on Commissioner James Comer’s list of legislative initiatives for the 2013 General Assembly, however, the idea of growing hemp has grown new legs.
Comer opened the meeting by saying what a historic day it was in Kentucky. “This commission is going to meet and do what we’re required by statute to do,” he said. “This is an exciting issue in agriculture and hopefully will impact future farmers for years and years.
“I sincerely believe industrial hemp can be a viable option for our farmers for many generations to come, and I also believe we can create badly needed jobs in the manufacturing sector with this crop.”
Comer was joined by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) at this year’s State Fair to announce their support of legislation that would allow hemp to once again be raised in the state. Paul is a cosponsor of federal legislation to allow hemp to be grown in the United States.
While the senator did not appear at this meeting he did send a representative, Mica Sims, who announced a donation of $50,000 from Paul’s political action committee to the operation of the commission. Paul said in a statement that Kentucky needs jobs and industrial hemp could create thousands of production and manufacturing jobs, and the state could be the first in line for them.
Also present at the meeting was 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. He also donated $50,000 to the commission.
“We really see industrial hemp as a sustainable, ecological crop. We’re big advocates for organic farming and hemp doesn’t need a lot of pesticides or herbicides,” he said.
“There has been a global renaissance over the last 10 years and the United States is the largest consumer market for hemp seed and fiber products, yet American farmers are being systematically denied. In the middle of the greatest recession, we’re continuing to hand the world’s largest market to Canadian farmers and Chinese farmers, and it’s ridiculous.”
State Rep. Tom McKee (D-Cynthiana), who chairs the House Agriculture Committee and is a farmer from Harrison County, is serving on the commission. He said even with this new effort there will still be many questions about raising hemp, but his committee is open to looking at new crops and profit potentials for farmers. He also said addressing the concerns about the crop with law enforcement officials will be important.
“I think we have to get law enforcement on board before we are going to be successful,” he added.
Police officials across the state have long voiced concerns about industrial hemp and its relationship with marijuana. While being different varieties, both plants are from the same species.
Major Anthony Terry of the Kentucky State Police is another member of the committee. He said some of the reservations law enforcement have with growing hemp is being able to identify who is legally growing the crop from those cultivating marijuana, as well as the work and cost involved when plants have to be tested to determine what is legal hemp.
Terry is an example of the diversity of the commission, which includes, in addition to law enforcement and lawmakers, hemp industry leaders, education leaders and even representation from the tobacco industry. Comer referred to them as a top-notch, quality, new hemp commission.
Eric Steenstra is president of the nonprofit Vote Hemp, a group dedicated to getting laws changed so American farmers can once again grow hemp. He said from a national perspective, Kentucky has become one of the top states pushing to get the initiative passed, thanks to the efforts of Comer and Paul.
“I think it is great because of the long history Kentucky has with industrial hemp,” he said.
The state once led the country in hemp production. Steenstra said although hemp can’t be grown in the United States, it can be imported, so data as it relates to the economics of the crop is available: “We estimate that just in seed products alone there is about $130 million to $150 million annually of retail sales.”
Craig Lee is an original member of the commission and worked with the late former Gov. Louie Nunn, who became a huge advocate for the legalization of industrial hemp. He said Nunn once told him to never let the commission die.
“It means a lot, being an activist and doing things to advocate for something like this, but it means more when you look up and there is a constitutional officer that is running on the issue because he’s listened to somebody, he’s heard somebody, he’s had an awakening and thank goodness for the commissioner of agriculture, James Comer,” Lee said.
With a short legislative session just around the corner, the commission will meet again before the end of the year in hopes of getting together legislation for the General Assembly to consider.