A bill that would set up a framework for the production of industrial hemp in Kentucky -- should federal barriers be removed -- was unanimously approved Monday by the state Senate Agriculture Committee.
The vote was taken after committee members heard testimony from U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Bowling Green Republican, and Warren County Commonwealth's Attorney Chris Cohron, among others.
The bill next goes to the full Senate.
Hemp is a relative of marijuana that contains low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical in marijuana that gives users a high. Hemp's fibers and seeds are used in a variety of products.
Sporting a hemp shirt, Paul told committee members that he will work to get a federal waiver, such as the one received for the No Child Left Behind law, that would allow Kentucky to grow the crop if state legislators set up the framework.
Although he doesn't expect hemp to replace big cash crops such as corn, it's possible that hemp will be a good crop for reclaimed land in parts of eastern Kentucky, Paul said.
"When I go to eastern Kentucky, they're starved for jobs out there," he said.
Hemp is an economic opportunity that other countries, such as Canada, have already taken advantage of, he said.
"Basically, we're exporting our profit to Canada," he said.
Paul spoke alongside U.S. Reps. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, and Thomas Massie, R-Vanceburg, as well as Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer.
Massie has sponsored a bill in the U.S. House that would distinguish between marijuana and industrial hemp. Yarmuth co-sponsors that bill. Paul is a co-sponsor of a similar bill in the U.S. Senate.
Cohron, who is legislative director of the Kentucky Commonwealth's Attorney Association, spoke with Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer during the hearing and expressed his concerns about a non-law enforcement body overseeing the regulation of any potential hemp industry. He described the addition of an extra burden on an already strained system as "troubling."
Cohron also said the economic benefit of the crop is still uncertain.
"We heard a lot of anecdotal evidence, but not true evidence as to what this would do for our commonwealth," Cohron said.
Cohron expected the legislation to pass the Senate committee and said it will probably be approved by the full Senate as well, although it might find more opposition in the House, he said this morning.
Cohron said he would like to see the results of a University of Kentucky study on the economic potential of the crop before any decisions are made.
Tommy Loving, executive director of the Kentucky Narcotic Officers' Association and director of the Bowling Green-Warren County Drug Task Force, was in Frankfort for the committee hearing, though he did not speak.
"We still don't understand the urgency when this continues to be against federal law," he said.
Loving said industrial hemp would be a good cover crop for people trying to conceal marijuana, while former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, who testified at the meeting, said hemp and marijuana are grown differently and for different purposes, with hemp grown much taller than marijuana for its fibers.
Loving, however, said he's seen marijuana plants grown up to 14 feet tall.
"They are indistinguishable to the naked eye," he said.
The bill has momentum behind it, but the KNOA will continue to lobby against the legislation, Loving said.
Jim Waters, president of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, said his organization, a conservative think tank, hasn't studied the issue of industrial hemp, but that the state needs a better approach to economic development than granting tax incentives.
"We certainly are for any policy that creates real economic opportunity," he said.
He respects the concerns of law enforcement, although he believes some of those concerns spring from lobbyists and bureaucrats rather than the individuals on the ground.
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