Senate passes industrial hemp bill, but legislation’s future is murky

By Lorie Hailey

FRANKFORT, Ky. (Feb. 14, 2013) — The state Senate has passed a bill to establish the framework to create an industrial hemp industry in Kentucky if the federal government makes it legal.

Industrial hemp can be used in the production of ropes, fabrics, plastics, cosmetics and other merchandise.

The Senate approved the bill 31-6, but the legislation’s future is murky because it may lack support of key government leaders.

RELATED: McConnell, Paul introduce federal industrial hemp legislation

Senate Bill 50, sponsored by committee chair Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, would make the state Department of Agriculture responsible for monitoring industrial hemp. Farmers wishing to grow hemp in Kentucky would register with the department and submit to criminal background checks before receiving licenses. Licenses would be renewed yearly.

Under the bill, state and local law enforcement would receive notification of licenses with exact GPS coordinates of hemp crop locations. Crops not used for research purposes would be at least 10 acres in size.

The bill also requires documentation from a licensed hemp grower when transporting hemp from a field or other production site. Industrial hemp can be used in the production of ropes, fabrics, plastics, cosmetics and other merchandise.

Proponents of the bill, including Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, say industrial hemp would be a good alternative to tobacco and other crops and could boost the state’s economy if it is legalized.

[pullquote_left]“We may be yelling about things very loudly that don’t really mean too much right now.” Gov. Steve Beshear[/pullquote_left]

Federal law currently prohibits growing industrial hemp. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, and U.S. Reps. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, and Thomas Massie, R-Vanceburg, who testified in support of SB 50 at its Agriculture Committee hearing, said they are working on legislation or an exemption for the state that would lift that restriction.

State law enforcement groups have criticized the movement to legalize hemp, saying it industrial hemp production in Kentucky is not economically sound, would impose an unnecessary financial burden on the state, and could facilitate future efforts to legalize its cousin – marijuana.

“Although industrial hemp contains only a small percentage of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, the plants are indistinguishable to the eye,” said Tommy Loving, executive director of the Kentucky Narcotic Officers’ Association (KNOA). “Without laboratory analysis, you can’t tell them apart.”

The Senate’s passage of the bill is the second of five steps to make it law, explains Joe Arnold of WHAS11 of Louisville. The bill’s fate in the House remains unclear.

The House Agriculture and Small Business Committee and full House would still need to consider it before Gov. Steve Beshear, who isn’t among SB 50’s supporters, decides whether to sign it into law.

“We may be yelling about things very loudly that don’t really mean too much right now,” Beshear has been quoted as saying.

The hemp industry seems to be marginal in other locations where it is legal, he added.

House Speak Greg Stumbo has expressed skepticism that growing hemp would create a significant number of jobs in Kentucky.

“I don’t think that a leap of faith based upon what somebody believes might happen … is worth doing something that our law enforcement community has such strenuous objections to,” the Prestonsburg representative said.

Stumbo and Rep. Terry Mills, D-Lebanon, sponsor of the House’s hemp licensing bill, both have said the industrial hemp movement could withstand a year of economic impact study, WHAS reported.

House Bill 33 requires the sheriff to monitor and randomly test industrial hemp fields.

A recent poll, conducted by RunSwitch Public Relations and Harper Polling, found that 65 percent of Kentuckians believe that hemp would create jobs. Nineteen percent said hemp’s resemblance to marijuana could undermine police efforts, 16 percent believed that law enforcement concerns about hemp took priority, and 16 percent said the issue needs more study.

The poll, conducted Feb. 11-12, surveyed 850 likely voters.

Comer said he is proud of the Senate for its “commitment to job creation in Kentucky.”

“Today’s bipartisan vote is the first step toward more opportunities for our farmers and jobs for Kentuckians,” Comer said.  “I am grateful to Sen. Paul Hornback for taking the lead on this issue, and I am hopeful that the House will be inspired to act favorably upon his bill.”