EARLIER: Hemp issue continues to fire up

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Sen. McConnell joins Hornback, Paul, Comer, Massie, other backers

By Lisa King

The economy-driven concept that Kentucky farmers should be allowed to grow and sell and industrial form of hemp continues to gain momentum, even as law enforcement officers question its impact on illegal drugs.

Bills to that effect have been filed in the state House and the Senate in past years, but they never have been successful.

But this year such legislation might have a fighting chance, said Sen. Paul Hornback, (R-Shelbyville), a supporter of Senate Bill 50 that proposes to license industrial hemp growers in Kentucky.

Proponents of the bill, including Hornback and many other legislators, as well as Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), who say that the allowing the growing of industrial hemp greatly would benefit the state economically, was increased by one more lawmaker Thursday –  Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

The senator said in a statement released b his office that after long discussions with Paul and Comer on the economic benefits of industrialized hemp, he was convinced that allowing its production would be a positive development for Kentucky’s farm families and economy.

“Commissioner Comer has assured me that his office is committed to pursuing industrialized hemp production in a way that does not compromise Kentucky law enforcement’s marijuana eradication efforts or in any way promote illegal drug use,” McConnell said in the statement. “The utilization of hemp to produce everything from clothing to paper is real, and if there is a capacity to center a new domestic industry in Kentucky that will create jobs in these difficult economic times, that sounds like a good thing to me.”

Comer, who has said he supports the concept because of its potential for job creation, said McConnell’s support means a lot.

“When the most powerful Republican in the country calls to discuss your issue, that’s a good day on the job,” he said in a statement released by his office. “Leader McConnell’s support adds immeasurable strength to our efforts to bring good jobs to Kentucky.”

Other supporters include the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce who voted unanimously to support SB 50 after hearing arguments on its behalf from State Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer and Hornback. The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council is also expected to pass a resolution endorsing the industrial hemp initiative.

SB 50 will be heard in the Senate Agriculture Committee on Feb. 11, a meeting to which Hornback, who chairs the committee and filed the bill, said he is looking forward.

“I'll have a hearing in ag committee on February 11, and I’m really optimistic,” he said. “It's a bipartisan bill. I've got [U.S.] Sen. Rand Paul [R-Kentucky] coming to speak in favor of the bill, Congressman John Yarmuth [D-3rd District], and Congressman Thomas Massie [R-4th District] to name a few, so it has bipartisan support.”


Not a drug

Massie, who spoke to a Republican GOP meeting in Shelby last week, emphasized his endorsement of the Industrial Hemp Farming Act, the proposed federal legislation to allow industrial hemp.

“Industrial hemp is a sustainable crop and could be great economically for farmers in Kentucky,” he said, after joking that there is so little THC – the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana – in hemp that you’d have to have a joint as big as a telephone pole in order to get high on the substance.

Hemp, a cousin of the marijuana plant, is grown around the world, and is used in a variety of products.

In 1997, Canada lifted its ban on hemp and imposed regulations on its growth, as does SB 50, whichspecifies that a minimum of 10 acres of hemp must be planted and that the Department of Agriculture would perform background checks with law enforcement, and crops would be tested for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Hemp and marijuana are both from the cannabis species. Hemp contains less than 1 percent of THC, compared with from 5 to 15 percent in marijuana.

More than 600,000 acres of hemp are grown worldwide today, with retails sales in 2008 exceeding $100 million.


Shelby’s role

Before it was outlawed by the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, hemp was a major cash crop in the United States and in Shelby County, said Jim Ellis, president of the agricultural watchdog group Maintain Our Rural Environment.

“Shelby County used to be a leading producer of hemp for ropes,” Ellis said. “You can’t compare it to legalizing marijuana because the drug factor is not there. It is something that certainly grows well in Shelby County.”

Ellis said he thinks Comer’s opinion that hemp production could have a positive impact on the state’s economy has some merit.

“Back in the economic recession in ‘08 and ‘09, Shelby County did not fare as badly as some other places because we had a strong agriculture economy, not only from horses, but from grains, corn and soybeans,” he said.  “Diversity helps the farmer, and hemp provides that diversity.”


Hornback: We should lead

But the bill also has that other issue: Even if passed by the General Assembly, industrial hemp also must be legalized by Congress.

Said Hornback, who also is owns and operates hundreds of acres of farmland: “It’s a huge economic issue. So many times we miss out on opportunities because we're not in the position to take advantage of them.

“What this bill does –if federal legislation does legalize the growing of hemp – then Kentucky will be in position to take advantage of that opportunity and seize onto it very quickly. This bill is about putting Kentucky in position to grow hemp, providing the federal government does allow it to happen. Kentucky sits back and waits a lot of times, to see what others are going to do. But sometimes, it's better to be first, and now we have that opportunity.”


Armstrong: Questions to be answered

There is opposition, too, found in the protests of the law enforcement officials, such as Kentucky State Police and the Kentucky Narcotics Association, organizations.

Shelby County Sheriff Mike Armstrong said he understands where Kentucky farmers are coming from an economic standpoint.

“I do come from an agricultural background, but on the other side of it, from a law enforcement perspective, I’m not for anything that would mean an increase of the drug problems that already exist,” he said.

Armstrong said he is aware that hemp has less THC than marijuana, but said, “So that just means they’ll have to smoke more of it.”

He admitted that it is a complicated issue that needs to be explored thoroughly.

“There are, in my mind, a lot of unanswered questions out there about hemp, and not just about how it acts on the body, but also about how it would affect the marijuana situation if it were legalized,” he said. “Before a good decision can be made about legalizing it, legislators need to do a lot of research on it, and I am depending on them to do that.”