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Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said he is optimistic that the state will be issuing licenses for industrial hemp by the end of the year.
Comer issued a statement on Friday in which he said that he believes the U.S. Justice Department’s ruling to reverse its policy and honor state laws regarding regulated marijuana sales also includes the production of industrial hemp.
“This is a major victory for Kentucky’s famers and for all Kentuckians,” Comer said in the release. “Two years ago, the Obama administration would not even discuss the legalization of industrial hemp.”
Comer said the Kentucky legislature’s work to push a bill through has the commonwealth in prime position to take advantage of the new regulations.
“We refused to listen to the naysayers, passed a hemp bill by a landslide, and our state is now on the forefront of an exciting new industry. That’s called leadership,” he said.
Comer said the passage of Senate Bill 50 – the industrial hemp bill sponsored by Sen. Paul Hornback (R-Shelbyville) – was key to ensuring that Kentucky was ready to move when this ruling was issued.
Brian Furnish, chairman of the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission, has called a meeting of the group for 10 a.m. on Sept. 12. Both Comer and Furnish will urge the commission to move forward with the administrative framework established by SB 50.
“My hope is that we can issue licenses and get industrial hemp in the ground within a year,” Furnish said.
John Wills, president of the Shelby County Farm Bureau, said he believes some area farmers will be ready to take up Comer’s offer for hemp licenses.
“I think there are some people that want to take a serious look at it,” he said. “I don’t know of anybody that’s ready to switch to a huge production yet, but I think they’ll want to look. Most of them are cautious enough to look for a market for the product first.”
Wills said Kentucky was a big producer of industrial hemp during World War II and that there are many volunteer plants still popping up around the state.
“It’s in a lot of areas where they would strip it by hand, and the seeds would lay around,” he said. “It’s still coming up and growing in a lot of those places.”
Wills, like some others, is a little cautious of Comer’s interpretation of the Justice Department’s decision.
The decision doesn’t mention industrial hemp and doesn’t mention states outside of Colorado and Washington, which have legalized recreational marijuana.
“I haven’t seen his [Comer’s] statement, so I don’t know exactly what’s on it, but I’m not exactly sure what he’s thinking,” Wills said. “I’m not sure this decision has made industrial hemp completely doable yet. Does it set the stage? Maybe, but I’m not completely sure. But from what I’ve seen, I don’t think the ruling has made the production of industrial hemp legal in Kentucky or anywhere else.”
One area of concern has been mixing the industrial hemp in fields with marijuana, which remains illegal in Kentucky. But Wills said that might not be as much a problem as people think.
“The two will cross pollinate,” he said. “But if they do, it will ruin the marijuana. You can put them in the same field, but it would take a very heavy amount of manual labor to keep the two separate and to pollinate by hand.”
Wills said it still remains to be seen if a market will appear, or how many farmers will take it on.
“I think if a company comes in and wants the product and sets a reasonable price for it, then people will start to grow it,” he said. “I think we have a lot of young farmers that looking for a way to get into farming, and this is a way. It could be like tobacco was, where you can get started without a ton of money and start to make a living. Not everyone has the start up money to grow corn or soybeans or even cattle at a level to make money.
“I think people are definitely going to take a look at it.”