Kentucky farmers could be growing industrial hemp by 2014 if efforts to legalize it at the state and federal level are successful, state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer says.
Making hemp available to farmers tops Comer’s agenda for the upcoming legislative session. On Wednesday, he convened the first meeting of the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission in a decade and said he believes the crop, made illegal because of its botanical association with marijuana, could be an economic boost for farmers, processors and manufacturers.
The commission was revived to find ways to promote industrial hemp and prepare the state for production if the federal government lifts restrictions on the crop, Comer said. The panel received $100,000 for its industrial hemp program fund with $50,000 contributions from U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s political action committee and David Bronner, president of California-based Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, which uses hemp oil in its products.
“This product will stand on its own, so much so that the private sector has stepped up to the plate and made a $100,000 investment to get this commission going,” Comer said, noting the commission isn’t seeking state funds for its work.
Other businesses are keeping a close tabs on the industrial hemp issue, Comer said. Caudill Seed Company, based in Louisville, is among those interested in Kentucky’s push to legalize the crop.
“They’ve been to China and other countries and researched what the seed market looks like over there,” Comer said. “They want to get in on this.”
The market for raw hemp is apparently growing but unavailable to the U.S., the only industrialized nation that bans the crop. The commission looked at a car dashboard made with hemp fiber and hemp powder used in biofuels.
Bronner, who runs a $50 million business, says he spends well over $100,000 each year importing Canadian hemp oil, but that could easily increase tenfold if it launches a hemp-based food line being considered. Buying hemp in the U.S. would be cheaper, he said.
While he has helped other states’ initiatives to legalize industrial hemp as a crop, Bronner says the $50,000 contribution is his first to a hemp-focused state commission.
Paul’s involvement in industrial hemp legalization efforts convinced Bronner Kentucky is taking the issue seriously. Paul has sponsored a bill in the U.S. Senate that would lift federal restrictions on the crop.
“There has been a global renaissance around hemp in the last 10 years, and the United States is the largest consumer market for hemp seed and fiber products,” he said after the commission meeting. “And yet, American farmers are being systematically denied in the middle of the greatest recession.”
If federal restrictions remain and the General Assembly legalizes industrial hemp, Kentucky could apply for a waiver through the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The state would not allow industrial hemp farming if the plant is made legal here but stays illegal at the federal level, Comer said. Other states have legalized marijuana for medical use, and Colorado and Washington recently decriminalized small amounts of the drug even though it remains illegal in the U.S.
Many in Kentucky support industrial hemp farming, which was a large industry here until World War II ended. While visiting 110 counties in the state since taking office, Comer says he has been asked questions about hemp at every stop.
Deborah Hill, a member of the commission and retired cooperative extension agent with the University of Kentucky, said she would welcome the opportunity to farm hemp on the 15-20 acres of open land at her Franklin County farm off Johnson Road.
“Harvesting it and transporting it are issues we need to make sure we’re clear on,” said Hill, who also served on a committee researching hemp at UK. “… It may be infeasible for me to do it on my farm, but I certainly want to give it a shot.”
If the commission succeeds in its initiative, it will have to overcome negative stigma surrounding hemp and its closeness with marijuana. Though it’s illegal and of the same plant family, industrial hemp has a far lower concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
Police have often said marijuana cultivation laws would be tough to enforce if industrial hemp were farmed, especially without strict regulations. Cost is also a potential concern for police, who have testified that more samples of suspected marijuana would need to be taken and tested during drug investigations if hemp were legal.
Growing pot and industrial hemp side-by-side would drop the THC content of marijuana considerably when the plants cross-pollinate, Comer said.
“Industrial hemp would be marijuana’s worst enemy,” he said. “… We’re serious about the war on drugs. We want to do everything we can to eliminate drugs. Industrial hemp is not a drug, so hopefully they (law enforcement) will focus their efforts on the drug problem in Kentucky, which is prescription drug abuse and meth.”
Comer backed an unsuccessful industrial hemp bill during this year’s legislative session, but he likes the effort’s chances in the upcoming General Assembly.
He saw more legislative candidates back the issue on campaign materials this election, and some asked him to talk about industrial hemp for so-called “robo-calls.”
New leadership in the state Senate also has Comer optimistic about industrial hemp’s chances. He said top leaders of the chamber haven’t supported legalizing industrial hemp in the past.
“I’m hopeful now with new leadership in the state Senate that we can take this issue and move it forward, and I’m excited to work with Sen. (John) Schickel (R-Union), who is very passionate about this issue, and hopefully we can get a serious debate and discussion,” Comer said.