By TIM THORNBERRY
FRANKFORT, Ky. — Anyone who doubted where state Rep. Tom McKee (D-Cynthiana) stood on the proposed Kentucky Hemp Bill had those doubts laid to rest after last week’s Agriculture and Small Business Committee meeting.
McKee, who chairs the committee, caught a whirlwind of criticism the first time Senate Bill 50 came in front of him, because he would not take a vote. He explained he had announced the bill was up for discussion only.
On March 6 the bill came up again, with McKee casting his “yes” vote this time as did all other committee members – with the exception of one.
But a victory for hemp advocates, including Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, was short-lived as the bill – set to move on to the full House – is not favored by Speaker Greg Stumbo (D-Prestonsburg) and is likely to be turned away at the House door.
Stumbo asked the state’s attorney general’s (AG) office to offer an opinion on whether the bill is needed, because of existing legislation passed more than a decade ago that states if a federal restriction is lifted, the state would follow the rules and regulations set by such a mandate.
Stumbo’s office issued a statement late last week in which he noted, “As I have said all along, the state already has a system in place for this crop. We will adopt whatever the federal guidelines are, should that ever occur.
“If we move ahead with Senate Bill 50, however, we could very well put in place something that would not be aligned with the federal regulations. Instead of putting us at the front of the line, as proponents of industrial hemp want, we would be at the back because we would have to clean up the law first. I want to avoid that scenario.”
The AG’s statement emphasized the office was not issuing a formal opinion but, rather, something that would offer assistance in determining if an existing statute will allow the growing of hemp if federal law were to changed to permit it. The statement noted the existing law says: “Kentucky shall adopt the federal rules and regulations that are currently enacted regarding industrial hemp and any subsequent changes thereto.
“If federal law is changed but no federal regulatory scheme is provided, industrial hemp would be essentially unregulated in Kentucky after the mandatory adoption of the federal definition.”
Comer, a Republican, said if that were the case, Kentucky will be unprepared to grow the crop without SB 50, which offers specific guidelines and regulatory language. He remains hopeful a bill can be passed even though the legislature is about to end its yearly session.
“We are working with people who want to get something done on industrial hemp in this session,” he said. “I’m not giving up on this. I am determined to see this through and move Kentucky forward.”
Stumbo said this issue needs more study. “At the end of the day, I think it would be better if we all stepped back and took time to really study this issue,” he said. “Commissioner Comer’s own upcoming study, which should have been done before any legislation was introduced, would be a good place to start.
“I also would support more in-depth hearings to see if there is a truly viable market here for farmers or if Commissioner Comer is merely blowing smoke.”
The Kentucky Hemp Commission, which Comer chairs as required by statute, has begun the process of a study via the University of Kentucky. Comer met with state House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins (D-Sandy Hook) last Friday in hopes of keeping the bill alive. He said it was a positive meeting.
“(Adkins) understands how important industrial hemp could be for his district and for all of Kentucky,” Comer said. “I am hopeful that we will be able to work together to get a vote on Senate Bill 50 on the House floor, and if we get a vote, I am confident the bill will pass.”
“Before promoting hemp farming and products, hemp advocates should show that hemp is safe to use, and is a viable cash crop,” Stumbo said. “To legalize the production of hemp without this vital information would expose Americans to unknown health risks, jeopardize public health and safety and exploit American farmers.”
Kentucky was once a leader in hemp production. It was so common and valuable at one point it was used as currency.
Oscar H. Will III, a farmer, scientist and author, wrote a paper nearly 10 years ago entitled The Forgotten History of Hemp Cultivation in America. In his research Will stated that Kentucky, along with Missouri and Illinois, led the country in hemp production. He stated politics and synthetic fibers proved to be the downfall of the crop.
Todd Clark, a farmer in Fayette County, said collectively tobacco and equine have seen a $1 billion loss in revenue over the last few years, yet farm cash receipts have gone up during that time period thanks to ag development funding efforts to help state farmers diversify.
“That’s why I think hemp is a positive thing. It’s just more tool in the toolbox; it’s something else to help further diversify,” he said. “It may not be a silver bullet, but at this point we don’t need a silver bullet; we need options and different things to pull off the shelf at the appropriate time. I think things like hemp are positive for the future.”
State ag revenues are likely to take another big hit when tobacco buyout money ends next year, and direct payment subsidies are expected to go away when a new farm bill is passed.