By TIM THORNBERRY
FRANKFORT, Ky. — Getting hemp legislation passed in Kentucky has taken on something of a “March Madness” feel, as a winner will not likely be determined until the final seconds of the game.
The Senate Bill 50 team is headed by Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and state Sen. Paul Hornback, both Republicans. Hornback introduced the legislation that would set up an administrative framework to once again grow hemp in Kentucky should federal restrictions be lifted.
What looked to be an easy, bipartisan effort on their part hit a tough defensive squad spearheaded by Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo (D-Prestonsburg), Kentucky State Police (KSP) Commission Rodney Brewer and U.S Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.).
S.B. 50 marched through the early competition in impressive form, winning a unanimous decision in the Senate Ag Committee, then a full Senate vote of 31-6. But the House proved a tougher opponent, where Stumbo stopped the original bill from getting a floor vote.
Instead, an amended version was presented by state Rep. Rocky Adkins (D-Sandy Hook), which left several members of the Kentucky Hemp Commission and Comer feeling their efforts were about to come up short. The amended bill called for a five-year study to be conducted and placing the KSP commissioner at the head of the Hemp Commission, which would be moved to the Center for Applied Energy Research at the University of Kentucky. The newer House version would also allow for tax credits to those growing hemp.
Comer said waiting for such a study would put Kentucky at the end of the line in production, instead of in first place. “I am open to compromise language as long as it does not delay the quest to put Kentucky first in line for the jobs industrial hemp would create,” he said.
“If we have to wait for another study, 49 other states will be growing hemp. I think I speak for the Commission when I say we trust Sen. Hornback to guide this legislation to a successful conclusion.”
Comer has said if the bill passes, Kentucky’s supportive federal delegation will request a waiver from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to allow the state to be the first to grow hemp. Holly VonLuehrte, Kentucky Department of Agriculture general counsel, said the amended bill would gut the administrative framework in S.B. 50, handicapping the federal delegation in this request.
“Without the administrative framework, they don’t believe they could go to the DEA and say ‘we have a responsible program here in Kentucky, issue us a waiver,’” she said.
VonLuehrte also said by placing the KSP commissioner at the helm of the Hemp Commission, the head of that agency would come out against growing hemp. She opined the amended bill effectively kills the hemp movement in Kentucky, as it is written.
Comer said waiting until the next legislation session to try again is not something to consider because he feels by then other states will be growing industrial hemp and there is only going to be a demand for so much.
“The first few states that get on board will be the states that develop the industry and will have the markets for the farmers,” he said. “If we’re not one of the first few states, then it would be pointless to say ‘let’s do it next year.’” He questions why Stumbo won’t allow a vote.
According to Vote Hemp, 31 states have introduced pro-hemp legislation, with 19 passing some in favor of growing the crop. This year neighboring states have hemp legislation pending, including Illinois, Indiana and Missouri.
Legislation at the federal level has also been introduced. Kentucky’s Republican senators, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, have cosponsored the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013.
Hornback was scheduled to meet with House leadership one more time to discuss concerns with the amended bill; however, this year’s General Assembly is scheduled to wrap up this week, leaving little time to work out a deal.