FRANKFORT, KY — A Kentucky Senate committee approved legislation Monday to regulate industrial hemp production if the now-illegal crop gains a federal reprieve, a step encouraged by such supporters as U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and former CIA director James Woolsey.
Supporters before the Senate Agriculture Committee touted hemp’s potential as an alternative crop for farmers and a way to create jobs by turning hemp into products that include paper, clothing, auto parts, biofuels, food and lotions.
Kentucky once was a leading producer of industrial hemp, which the government once encouraged farmers to grow during World War II when other industrial fibers were scarce. But the leafy crop hasn’t been grown in the U.S. for decades, ever since the federal government classified hemp as a controlled substance related to marijuana.
“I’m not up here saying this is the panacea that next year everybody is going to work for a hemp farmer,” said Paul, a Kentucky Republican who wore a shirt of hemp material. “But why not legalize something that could produce jobs.”
Woolsey said he became a hemp advocate because of the potential to boost rural economies. Others who promoted it at the committee hearing were U.S. Reps. John Yarmuth and Thomas Massie of Kentucky.
U.S. retail sales of hemp products exceed $400 million per year, advocates say. Dozens of countries produce hemp commercially, and most imported hemp is grown in Canada and Europe.
The bill won unanimous committee approval despite the concerns of Kentucky State Police, the state’s leading law enforcement agency.
State police Commissioner Rodney Brewer said law enforcement is unable to detect the difference between hemp and marijuana, its much more potent relative, without costly testing. Hemp has a negligible content of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.
“They are identical in appearance when it comes to the naked eye,” Brewer said. “Science tells us that the only way to fully identify the difference.”
That testing, he said, would add to the work load for overstrapped police labs when someone charged with marijuana possession claims they were caught with hemp.
Committee chairman Paul Hornback, the bill’s lead sponsor, said he tried alleviate those concerns by limiting the transportation of hemp to those who have certification papers.
One powerful skeptic of the bill is House Speaker Greg Stumbo. The Prestonsburg Democrat told reporters later Monday that he needed assurances that hemp’s “market viability and the benefit to the state would far outweigh the concerns of our law enforcement community.”
“It’s doesn’t appear that there’s a market for hemp,” Stumbo said. “It does appear that the European countries and Canada have to use government monies to subsidize that industry and, at the present, I don’t believe we could afford another government subsidy.”
State Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who has championed the cause of reviving industrial hemp, has said he’s been contacted by Kentucky businesses interested in it if the crop becomes legal.
But one committee member who voted for the bill, Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield of Hopkinsville, said “not a single farmer … has come to me and said ‘I’d love to grow hemp instead of these record prices I’m getting on corn.’”
Under the bill, the state agriculture department would license hemp growers and production would be subject to inspection. Growers would undergo criminal background checks. A production license would be valid for one year and a grower would be limited to 10 acres for each license.
Comer and other supporters said hemp’s reintroduction in Kentucky hinges on federal approval of the crop.
Bills being proposed in Congress would remove the federal restrictions on hemp production. Paul is leading the push in the Senate, and Massie is a primary sponsor of a House bill. Paul said he also would seek a federal waiver to allow for a resumption of hemp production in Kentucky if the legislation stalls.
The debate during the committee hearing revolved around law enforcement concerns that marijuana growers would try to infiltrate hemp fields to secretly grow pot.
Woolsey dismissed such worries, saying marijuana growers have not infiltrated hemp fields in the dozens of countries that allow hemp production.
Woolsey also downplayed concerns people could abuse hemp’s negligible amount of THC. He likened trying to get high off hemp to trying to get drunk on non-alcoholic beer.
The bill now heads to the full Senate, but a couple of the chamber’s Republicans leaders didn’t say when the measure will be debated and voted on.
“I think it has a real good shot in the Senate,” said Sen. Dan Seum of Louisville, the chamber’s GOP caucus chairman.