Following endorsements from members of Kentucky’s federal delegation, a bill that would establish the framework for industrial hemp farming in Kentucky easily cleared a legislative panel Monday.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, wearing a shirt made from hemp fiber, and U.S. Reps. John Yarmuth and Thomas Massie joined state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer as they spoke before the Senate Committee on Agriculture in support of Senate Bill 50, which passed unanimously.
The bill would not legalize industrial hemp, but would set regulations on the crop if the federal government decriminalizes it or grants Kentucky a waiver to grow it.
The Kentucky Department of Agriculture would be charged with much of the oversight in an industrial hemp program under SB 50.
Licensed farmers would have to grow at least 10 acres of hemp. Seeds would be verified at federally mandated concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol, otherwise known as THC. Only permitted carriers would be able to transport hemp.
Hemp is classified as a controlled substance in the U.S. because it’s of the same plant species as marijuana, but proponents say it has economic potential and presents no risk of getting anyone high.
Comer’s pitch for SB 50 centered on jobs that could be created in the harvesting and manufacturing of industrial hemp. Leaders in auto manufacturing, seed processing, energy and other industries have expressed interest in Kentucky-grown hemp, he said.
“Almost half a billion dollars worth of hemp products are sold in the United States every year, and the hemp is grown in other countries, countries such as China and Thailand,” Comer said.
Law enforcement officials, namely Kentucky State Police and Operation UNITE, have voiced concerns with SB 50 and industrial hemp, saying the bill could allow farmers or others to plant marijuana in plain sight inside certified hemp fields. They have also questioned demand for the crop.
KSP Commissioner Rodney Brewer said marijuana enforcement would suffer because hemp and marijuana are indistinguishable when grown side-by-side. Testing is the only way to confirm which plants are hemp and which are marijuana, he said.
SB 50 supporters say growing marijuana in hemp fields would weaken its potency.
Farmers would have to register with the Department of Agriculture under SB 50, risking their farms if caught growing marijuana, said former CIA Director R. James Woolsey.
“So he has to be not only uninformed about botany and perhaps high on marijuana, he has to not mind putting his livelihood at risk,” Woolsey said.
Other countries have found ways to grow hemp without facing problems enforcing marijuana laws, Paul said.
“I think there’s nothing here that’s not overcome-able,” Paul said. “If I thought this was going to allow marijuana to take off, I wouldn’t be for it … I think everybody here agrees with that.”
Paul, Yarmuth, D-Louisville, and Massie, R-Vanceburg, have supported federal efforts to legalize industrial hemp.
Massie filed legislation co-sponsored by Yarmuth earlier this month. Paul and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are backing a similar bill in the Senate.
Other states, like North Dakota, have passed similar bills establishing oversight and farming guidelines, proponents noted.
“You can’t take a wait-and-see attitude on this,” Massie said. “There’s a first-mover advantage that we can’t afford to lose.”
Paul said if industrial hemp remains illegal, he would seek a waiver from President Barack Obama’s administration allowing the crop in Kentucky.
How SB 50 will fare in the General Assembly remains to be seen. Senate Majority Caucus Chair Dan Seum, R-Fairdale, said Senate Republicans would be polled this week before the bill is brought to a vote.
“We would like the sponsor of the bill to be sure that he has enough votes,” Seum said. “There will be some discussion on it, but I think it looks pretty positive.”
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, has said the issue needs further study.
Comer said an economic impact study of the crop’s potential conducted by the University of Kentucky should be ready by April.