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WHAT WE THINK: We are waiting for smoke to clear

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That state Sen. Paul Hornback (R-Shelbyville) was able to push his bill to accommodate hemp through the state Senate in just a couple of weeks of the session is remarkable. That he had an all-star lineup of Republican endorsements is impressive.

We aren’t certain just yet if we want to embrace the downhill snowball that the legalization of industrial hemp has become, but all this discussion and rapid movement by our elected leaders certainly have our undivided attention.

That state Sen. Paul Hornback (R-Shelbyville) was able to push his bill to accommodate hemp through the state Senate in just a couple of weeks of the session is remarkable. That he had an all-star lineup of Republican endorsements is impressive.

And now the whole idea – which has moved on to the state House, where it may or may not be embraced as enthusiastically – has the big guns in Washington filing and lobbying for the required national legislation that would render the viability of Kentucky’s toe-in-the-water approach. With no change in the federal law, what Sen. Hornback has achieved is meaningless.

We understand the arguments on both sides of this curiously fast-growing effort.

Hemp is an indigenous crop in Kentucky, with a long history of being a successful crop before it was outlawed in 1937. In fact, research by the Kentucky Press Association revealed that our state led the country in the production of industrial hemp between 1840-1860, hitting a high point in 1850 with 40,000 tons valued at $5 million.

Calculate those figures in 2013 dollars – KPA did and came up with $135,950,942.25

 – and you can see that farmers around the state, including Sen. Hornback, chairman of the Senate’s Agriculture Committee, and Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, a chief proponent, could see a windfall of opportunity, perhaps to replace the more nebulous and declining tobacco market. There is little doubt that hemp could become a growth industry in many ways, and that all sounds really positive.

But we also understand the reason hemp first was banned: It is stigmatized by the byproduct of creating marijuana through a related plant, one so similar that law-enforcement officials say they would have a very difficult time policing its growth. Those aerial spying flights so common in our skies would be rendered somewhat meaningless, they have said, and our state’s illegal marijuana market may be positioned to expand. That’s a valid concern, especially when we understand how many marijuana-related cases that are prosecuted in Shelby County each year.

But what we don’t understand is how this whole issue could become politically aligned.

What difference does this idea make to a Republican or a Democrat? Yes, we find it ironic that our conservative leaders are the most outspoken supporters of legalizing hemp, but we don’t think that’s a reason for Democrats to veto the idea.

If legalizing industrial hemp is an idea that has merit, then our elected representatives in the General Assembly and in Washington should pursue it regardless of their party affiliations.

If this process would create an environment that could damage our young people through an unlimited availability of pot, then we should avoid doing so.

Those decisions are simply black and white and certainly not blue and red. Let’s make a choice and complete the discussion.

Of course, there is this other issue, too: Voters and lawmakers in California and Colorado have seen fit to allow that “other” kind of marijuana to have a legal spot in the marketplace, too. Certainly if  that’s OK, wouldn’t manufacturing legal products with  hemp be OK as well?

Yes, hemp is definitely hip right now, and we find that sort of an odd development, especially given that its state discussion is emanating from Shelby County.

It was less than 20 years ago that Donna Cockrel, a teacher at Simpsonville Elementary, brought in actor Woody Harrelson, a longtime proponent of industrial hemp, to educate her students about that crop and how it could be produced and used to manufacture clothes, rope and other items?

Ms. Cockrel became the punching bag of public opinion, which generated a maelstrom that eventually caused her to be fired and to file a lawsuit against Shelby County Public Schools based on what she perceived as a violation of her First Amendment rights. That suit went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before it was settled.

Now a teacher at Simpsonville Elementary only would have to pick up copies of this newspaper to understand hemp and the industry or to tune into C-Span sometime soon to hear the same sort of opinions as espoused by Mr. Harrelson generated by our electorate right from the halls of Congress.

In fact, we wouldn’t find it much of a surprise if some of those who creamed so loudly for Ms. Cockrel’s ouster now were the biggest supporters of industrial hemp.

No, we aren’t yet sure if we support this pro-hemp movement, but we are dead certain of this:

The times, they are a changin.’