Sparks flew in the House Agriculture and Small Business Committee Wednesday when the panel did not vote on a bill that would establish the regulatory framework for industrial hemp farming in Kentucky.
Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and members of law enforcement laid out their positions on Senate Bill 50 during a two-hour committee meeting early Wednesday. The bill would not legalize industrial hemp, but would set regulations on farming hemp should the federal government lift restrictions on the crop.
As the meeting neared its end, Rep. Jim DeCesare, R-Rockfield, made a motion to pass SB 50 as written, but Rep. Tom McKee, a Cynthiana Democrat and chair of the agriculture committee, ruled him out of order, blocking a vote.
The committee recessed to resume discussions on the bill after the House finished its business, but the meeting adjourned later in the day at McKee’s desk in the House without taking up SB 50. McKee said committee members would decide whether the legislation is considered at a later meeting.
“We’d like to do something this year, and I think there’s a chance that maybe we can do that with our committee sub while we’re waiting for the federal ban to be lifted, whenever that may be,” McKee said.
McKee has introduced a House substitute to SB 50 requiring the University of Kentucky to grow and study industrial hemp on a trial basis. UK officials would report back to the General Assembly before the 2014 session under the proposed amendment. McKee said he hopes UK can get a federal waiver to grow hemp.
McKee said his goal is to have the committee substitute, which he said is “much more aggressive” than SB 50, adopted. He said he’s unsure on the course of action should the committee decline to approve the proposed substitute.
DeCesare said politics are clearly at play on whether the House will take up SB 50.
“This is a good piece of legislation to make sure law enforcement has the tools they need if hemp becomes legal in Kentucky,” DeCesare said after the early morning meeting. “I don’t understand what’s going on here, so it has to be politics.”
Comer said he did not sense a lot of opposition from the committee to SB 50, sponsored by Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville. He said the legislation had the votes to move out of committee, and he estimated the bill would pass the 100-member House with 75 or 80 votes.
Kentuckians support industrial hemp farming, he said, and the issue “symbolizes what’s wrong with the Kentucky General Assembly.”
“The majority of legislators want to do good things, they want to create jobs, they want to help farmers, but it gets bogged down in the political bickering,” Comer said. “If the chairman of the committee would just let the bill be voted on, the bill will pass as is.”
Law enforcement groups and agencies, namely Kentucky State Police, oppose the bill.
Kentucky State Police Maj. Tony Terry told lawmakers hemp and marijuana grown side-by-side are indiscernible to the naked eye; chemical testing is the only method to differentiate the two. Marijuana has been found growing in Kentucky corn fields, he said.
He also said potent hash oil could be extracted from hemp, which generally has about 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana.
Jeremy Triplett, supervisor of the KSP forensic laboratory, said the extraction process takes about two hours.
Proponents touted the crop’s economic potential.
Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, said hemp has been seen as better horse bedding than wood shavings.
John Roulac, founder and CEO of Nutiva, said his health food company has seen substantial growth since its inception in 1999. The company’s sales last year totaled $38 million, up from $18 million the year before, he said.
About $8 million in Nutiva’s sales came from hemp-based products, and he expects that number to reach $12 million next year, he said, noting GNC, Costco and Whole Foods have signed on to sell hemp products from Nutiva.
“These are all markets that are available, and Kentucky farmers can address those markets,” Roulac said.