Legislation establishing the framework for industrial hemp farming in Kentucky passed the Senate Thursday by a 31-6 vote.
Senate Bill 50 now moves to the House, where House Speaker Greg Stumbo has expressed doubts about the crop’s economic potential.
The bill would license farmers to grow at least 10 acres of industrial hemp, if the federal government decriminalizes the crop or the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency grants Kentucky a waiver.
Supporters highlighted the possible outgrowth of jobs in the processing and manufacturing of hemp, which is part of the same plant species as marijuana. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, said $400 million in hemp products were imported and sold in the U.S. last year.
Hornback said two companies contacted him last week about Kentucky-grown industrial hemp, one a processor in Vancouver interested in expanding here and guaranteeing
contracts to growers.
“Nobody knows exactly what the market for this product is going to be next year, five years, 10 years from now or whenever the federal government chooses to legalize this crop,” Hornback said.
“… Let’s not study. Let’s not sit back and wait. Let’s not miss the opportunity that is presenting itself right now.”
Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who has pushed for SB 50 and industrial hemp in general, praised the outcome. In a statement, he said he hopes the House acts favorably on the bill.
“Today’s bipartisan vote is the first step toward more opportunities for our farmers and jobs for Kentuckians,” Comer said.
Senators who voted against SB 50 cited law enforcement concerns.
Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer testified against the bill at a Senate Agriculture Committee meeting earlier in the week, saying marijuana plants could be grown alongside hemp and hidden in plain sight.
Sen. Chris Girdler, R-Somerset, said he doubts the economic impact of industrial hemp. The crop is subsidized in other countries that grow it, he said.
“If this measure passes, I hope that it creates thousands of jobs,” Girdler said. “Unfortunately, I believe the growing of a Chia Pet would have as much economic prosperity as the growing of hemp.”
But those who voted in favor of SB 50 expressed optimism on the economic impact. Senate Minority Leader R.J. Palmer, D-Winchester, noted SB 50 does not legalize industrial hemp, but relies on the federal government to OK its growth.
“It’s positive for Kentucky farmers, and I believe that it can have an impact, and we should be ready and able to take advantage of that,” Palmer said.
Gov. Steve Beshear said he could support an agricultural product that might prove beneficial to farmers, but the market is unclear.
He also mentioned law enforcement concerns, saying Kentucky has “a big drug problem” and he does not want to see the problem worsen.
On Thursday, U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, and Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate to allow the nation’s farmers to grow industrial hemp. The measure, also sponsored by Oregon Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, both Democrats, would remove the crop from the list of controlled substances under federal law.
If SB 50 is approved, Kentucky would join eight others that have taken steps to allow commercial hemp production despite the federal ban. The Kentucky Department of Agriculture would oversee an industrial hemp program under the legislation.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.