The Courier-JournalFRANKFORT, KY. — An effort to allow Kentucky farmers to grow hemp for a variety of products passed the state Senate Thursday — and took a small step toward federal acceptance as well.
But it still faces steep odds, including skepticism from the governor and Kentucky State Police and the distinct possibility of being gutted in the state House.
Backers of Senate Bill 50 say Thursday’s 31-6 vote could make Kentucky among the first in the nation to legalize the crop, potentially creating thousands of hemp-related jobs growing and processing the plant’s fiber and seeds.
But Gov. Steve Beshear said he has doubts about legalizing the far weaker relative of marijuana as an industrial crop, citing state police concerns about complicating marijuana enforcement efforts. Even if the state legalizes hemp, the federal government would have to distinguish it from marijuana before cultivation would be allowed.
Washington took a step in that direction Thursday, when U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul joined Oregon’s senators in sponsoring a bill that would remove hemp from the federal controlled substance list and define it as a non-drug — as long as it contains less than 0.3 percent THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
Marijuana has 3 percent to 15 percent THC.
“I am extremely proud of the Kentucky state Senate for its commitment to job creation in Kentucky,” said Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who has led the campaign to pass the bill, along with Paul.
Kentucky would become the ninth state to remove barriers to the production of industrial hemp, according to Vote Hemp, a national group seeking to legalize the crop.
“Today’s bipartisan vote is the first step toward more opportunities for our farmers and jobs for Kentuckians,” Comer said.
The bill now goes to the House, where Speaker Greg Stumbo said it will have a “tougher time.”
House may rewrite
Stumbo has suggested the bill may be overhauled to remove the rules for growing hemp and replace them with an economic impact study. Stumbo, a Prestonsburg Democrat and former state attorney general, has said he doesn’t believe there’s a market for hemp.
“It’s not that we are saying no,” he said. “We are saying that the evidence doesn’t show enough of a market to override the concerns that the law enforcement community has.”
Beshear voiced similar concerns in an interview with reporters before the Senate vote.
“We really don’t know anything about whether there’s going to be a market for it yet,” Beshear said. “ ... The other concern is law enforcement. ... We’ve got a big drug problem in Kentucky, and I just want to make sure we don’t do anything that will make that problem any worse.”
The Kentucky State Police, the most vocal critics of the bill, didn’t comment on the vote. The KSP argues that allowing hemp production would hamper efforts to eradicate marijuana because the plants look very similar.
“Our position’s very well known,” Sgt. Rick Saint Blancard said, adding that the agency will enforce whatever laws are passed.
The U.S. Senate legislation sponsored by McConnell and Paul is similar to a bill filed in the House last week by U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-4th District.
The House bill has 28 Democratic and Republican co-sponsors, including Rep. John Yarmuth, D-3rd District. Massie, Yarmuth and Paul testified in Frankfort on Monday in support of the state bill.
The debate Thursday on the Kentucky Senate floor mirrored previous arguments, both in Kentucky and across the nation.
Five of the six senators who voted against the bill come from the congressional district of U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, who opposes the bill. The six are Chris Girdler, R-Somerset; David Givens, R-Greensburg; Ray Jones, D-Pikeville; Albert Robinson, R-London; Brandon Smith, R-Hazard; and Johnny Ray Turner, D-Prestonsburg.
Girdler, who previously worked for Rogers, said he believes the state has more pressing issues — such as pension reform — to worry about.
“This issue in the big scheme of things is a non-issue,” he said, also questioning its economic benefit.
Givens, the former chairman of the Agriculture Committee, said he would prefer to approve a small, controlled growing study while the economics of hemp could be analyzed.
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, did not vote — the first time he hasn’t this session, a spokeswoman said. Stivers, who also lives in Rogers’ district, declined to explain his reasoning, saying he wanted to get home for Valentine’s Day.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, said he doesn’t see hemp as a “cash cow” and admitted its economic potential is unknown, but he said the bill gives Kentucky farmers the ability to compete.
Seeking a chance
“Give us the opportunity to see how this works,” said Hornback who is a farmer. He said any study would be limited because growing the product isn’t allowed in the United States. But he said he’s already heard from two companies interested in Kentucky taking action, including a Canadian hemp processor that would relocate to Kentucky and another that would be interested in using hemp fiber for concrete.
“If you’re not first, you’re probably last,” Hornback said.
SB 50 would require growers to be licensed annually and undergo a background check by the Agriculture Department.
Each licensee would be required to plant a minimum of 10 acres, a provision meant to keep licenses from people who are not serious about the effort.
Growers would have to keep sales contracts for three years and provide names of hemp buyers to the department