By TIM THORNBERRY
FRANKFORT, Ky. — The Kentucky state Senate has wasted no time in passing hemp legislation. On Feb. 11, with an overflow crowd on hand, the Senate Agriculture Committee passed SB 50, better known as the Industrial Hemp Bill, unanimously. By the end of the week, the full Senate did the same by a 31-6 vote.
The bill, introduced by state Sen. Paul Hornback (R-Shelbyville), provides for an administrative framework for the production of hemp in the event federal legislation passes allowing it. Hemp is currently banned in the United States – the plant is classified as a controlled substance because of its close relationship with marijuana.
Agriculture Commissioner James Comer has urged lawmakers to pass legislation since taking office more than a year ago. Thus far, his biggest opposition has come from law enforcement.
Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer, who has publicly come out against the hemp legislation, addressed the Ag Committee early last week. He told lawmakers there exists a real chance for marijuana growers to hide their crop within hemp fields.
“They (hemp and marijuana) are identical in appearance when it comes to the naked eye. You’ll hear folks that say they have the expertise and they can identify those by readily looking at them by the way they grow and by their characteristics; that is not the case,” he said.
Brewer added laboratory testing must be conducted on the plants to accurately tell the difference, which is costly. He said marijuana could easily be inserted within a farmer’s hemp crop without their knowledge.
“It would be very difficult for us to ascertain what was hemp and what was marijuana,” he said.
While committee members acknowledged law enforcement concerns, a number of prominent proponents showed up to lend their comments, including U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), U.S. Reps. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), along with James Woolsey, director of Central Intelligence during the Clinton administration.
Woolsey, who serves on the North American Hemp Council (NAHC), told the gathering the foremost focus should be on the potential jobs and prosperity of legalizing the growth of industrial hemp.
“I want to say the ease of distinguishing industrial hemp from marijuana is at the heart of this matter, and also … whether it is plausible to plant marijuana, hide it essentially, in industrial hemp fields,” he said.
Woolsey said there are 35 industrialized countries that permit the growing of industrial hemp and the NAHC cannot find one that has had a problem in distinguishing between the two plants.
Paul, who showed off his shirt made of hemp, said the hearing was about a crop that is legal everywhere else in the world except in this country. “I see no reason why we wouldn’t want to be a leader in this,” he said. “Everyone else has figured out how to do this.
“My point is that I think those who have come here that have concerns, they are valid … but I think there is nothing here that is not overcomeable. If I thought this was going to allow marijuana to take off in our state, I wouldn’t be for it.”
Paul is pushing for legislation on the federal level and said he would ask the Obama administration for a waiver to grow hemp in Kentucky in the event the General Assembly passes the legislation.
Yarmuth said while he is not a farmer, he is convinced industrialized hemp represents an enormous economic future for whoever is willing to take advantage of it.
“We should be and must be positioned in a way to take advantage of it when legalization at the federal level occurs or if we can convince the federal government to give Kentucky a waiver,” he said.
Massie, who is a farmer, said there is momentum at the federal level to pass a bill he has introduced in the House of Representatives that would remove hemp from the controlled substances list. He also said his first experience with hemp was on the farm, where he uses hemp rope made in China because it is much stronger than nylon rope.
“I submit to you that we are competing with other states. Our climate is right for this and we are going to be competing with Ohio, Indiana and Tennessee because their climate is just as well suited. I implore you to pass Senate Bill 50,” he told the committee.
Comer said there is overwhelming support for the growing of industrial hemp and thanked the Congressional delegation for their willingness to be at the hearing and for fighting for jobs in the state.
“Industrial hemp is a crop that will grow well in Kentucky. Industry leaders in automotive manufacturing, cosmetics, energy, processing and certified seeds are all interested in Kentucky-grown industrial hemp,” he said.
“This bill simply sets up a framework for a responsible program,” he added. “My office stands ready to take on all the responsibilities of Senate Bill 50. We will certify the hemp seed is at or below the appropriate THC (the drug substance) level. We will administer background checks and license growers. We will provide GPS mapping of industrial hemp production to law enforcement and we inspect the crops and conduct testing when appropriate.”
According to information from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, the full Senate passage came, “just hours after the release of a Harper Polling survey that showed that 65 percent of likely voters believe industrial hemp is not a drug and that legalizing the crop would create jobs. Only 19 percent believe legalizing hemp would hurt marijuana eradication efforts, and a mere 16 percent believe the issue needs further study.”
A similar bill has been introduced in the Kentucky House, but passage there is expected to be much more difficult than in the Senate.