Legalizing industrial hemp would create enforcement and perception problems for Kentucky, the head of a federal drug enforcement agency says.
Ed Shemelya, a former Kentucky State Police commander and head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, testified Wednesday against legislative proposals that would make marijuana’s botanical cousin available for harvest.
Shemelya told the House Agriculture and Small Business Committee that Kentucky is one of the top states that produce marijuana, and hemp is “virtually indistinguishable” from outdoor marijuana plants, which can grow up to 18 feet.
Supporters of House bills 272 and 286, which would make hemp a legal crop under regulations, have said marijuana plants can be easily distinguished from hemp crops.
However, Shemelya contends that without analyzing the chemical makeup of the plant, identifying hemp from marijuana is practically impossible.
“It’s only hemp when you determine the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive compound in marijuana) concentration of the plant,” Shemelya told legislators.
“… The only way to do that is to actually do a laboratory analysis on that plant and determine if that THC content is a percent or less.”
Shemelya’s primary concern, however, is the message that legalizing hemp would send. He compared the possible legalization of hemp to the 16 states that have allowed medicinal marijuana, portraying both as a perceived lax concern for marijuana.
He said in all 16 states that allow medicinal marijuana, usage of the drug has increased because “there’s no perception of risk.”
“It sends a horrible message to the youth of the commonwealth, and that’s our biggest concern –the message we’re sending out,” he said.
“I understand … the importance of agriculture and the need to diversify, but hemp is not the product we need to look at for diversification.”
He also noted that Canada produced less than 12,000 acres of hemp in 2009 after a high of 48,000 acres in 1998 because of market saturation.
It’s unlikely either of the House bills will come to a vote this session. But Rep. Terry Mills, a Lebanon Democrat and sponsor of HB 272, said the discussion would continue considering the industrial possibilities with hemp, such as the manufacture of plastics in cars.
With the growing presence of methamphetamine and prescription pills, Kentucky’s drug scene has changed since 1998, he said.
“As I’ve said, I’m motivated by making agriculture better,” Mills said. “I’m not motivated by making any drugs legal for medicinal or recreational purposes.”