Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are hoping to make industrial hemp production legal in Kentucky for the first time in decades and other government officials have publicly voiced support for the initiative.
Kentucky farmers produced more than 90 percent of the nation’s industrial hemp supply during the 1800s and the early 1900s. Production slowed during the World War II era. By the 1970s, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had outlawed hemp production; industrial hemp is classified as Schedule 1, the same classification as marijuana and cocaine.
"Kentucky needs jobs,” Paul said. “Everybody says they are for job creation, but supporting industrial hemp is their chance to prove it.”
Two legislators filed bills Friday in support of Comer and Paul’s initiative. Also Friday, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce board voted in support of hemp farming, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.
State Sen. Paul Hornback (R-Shelbyville) sponsored Senate Bill 50, which calls for federal officials to empower state authorities to decide whether industrial hemp is legal. Each farmer would have to apply for a license and pass a criminal background check. State police would receive copies of each approved license.
State Rep. Terry Mills (D-Lebanon) filed House Bill 33, which would give law enforcement officials a similar method of tracking legal hemp growers.
Some law enforcement officials say that with the current economic climate, it is time to at least explore changing the legality of growing hemp for industrial purposes. The versatile crop can be turned into paper, clothing, food, biofuels, lotions and many other products. Hemp has the potential to become the third most profitable crop in the state, according to Comer.
“If there is a way to keep the legal side of hemp away from illegal marijuana, then I have no problem with legalizing hemp,” Lancaster Police Chief Rodney Kidd said. “But I am not into ‘go grow and be happy.’”
The potential problem of keeping hemp and marijuana separate led Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer to publicly voice his opposition to Comer and Paul’s initiative.
"It’s incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to the casual observer or even the astute observer to tell the difference between hemp and marijuana as its being grown" Brewer said. He added that problem becomes even more difficult when police use helicopters to search for marijuana fields, a common practice.
Comer and Middleburg farmer Troy Kleffman disagreed with Brewer’s assessment, saying that farmers would not be able to grow hemp near marijuana because of cross-pollination issues.
Marijuana is a short, bushy plant with lots of leaves while industrial hemp is tall, with a thick stalk and few leaves. When grown near each other, hemp and marijuana cross-pollinate, which destroys the THC-laden buds on the marijuana plants that provide the high.
"Industrial hemp is an enemy of marijuana," Comer said. "Law enforcement should be for industrial hemp."
Danville Police Chief Tony Gray has not extensively researched the issue of bringing hemp production back to Kentucky, but has concerns about the possible connection to marijuana.
The level of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana, is much smaller in hemp than the street drug.
“The THC concentration of the illicit marijuana is 6, 8, 12, 14 percent,” said Ed Shemelya, a 30-year veteran of the Kentucky State Police.
“Hemp is classified as 1.5 or less.”
Gray’s primary concern is that many people already view the street drug marijuana as “safe” and that legalizing hemp could further some people’s cause to legalize ingestible marijuana.
“I am not in favor of legalizing marijuana for people to smoke or otherwise ingest” Gray said. “There are some potential challenges for law enforcement if hemp is indeed legalized and it would be interesting to see how lawmakers would deal with such issues.”
Legislators would need to devote extensive time to developing ways for law enforcement officials to determine which farmers are authorized to grow hemp, Kidd said.