Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

February 19, 2013

Not everybody sold on hemp

By RONNIE ELLIS
CNHI News Service

FRANKFORT — There they were together, both promoting a new five-year strategic plan for Kentucky agriculture.

But neither Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear nor Republican Commissioner of Agriculture Jamie Comer mentioned the word on so many minds in Frankfort these days: hemp.

The plan, developed by the Kentucky Agriculture Council (KAC), lists seven core strategies, none of them specifically tied to hemp: next generation farming; new market identification; regional agricultural and rural community development; agricultural education; consumer education; government policies; and policy-maker education.

But the printed plan also lists some “sidebars,” one of which is entitled “Opportunities for industrial hemp may promote continued diversification.”

Comer has made passage of a bill to authorize the regulation of hemp growing in Kentucky a priority but Beshear has voiced concerns about an available market for the biological relative of marijuana and law enforcement’s ability to distinguish between hemp and marijuana.

Currently the federal government bars cultivation of hemp but Kentucky’s Republican Senators, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, have introduced legislation to end that federal ban.

Beshear said he endorses the effort by the agriculture community to be pro-active in searching for new markets and diversifying crops, but that doesn’t mean he agrees with Comer’s or others’ position on hemp.

“Hemp is certainly possible an example of diversification,” Beshear said. “We’ve got two issues we’ve got to address there; is there a market for it. I think there are some studies going on right now that might help us in that direction. And then there are law enforcement concerns. We need to solve both of those issues before we move hemp.”

The state Republican-controlled Senate has already passed a bill to set up a “regulatory framework” to license hemp growers and production in Kentucky but its prospects in the Democratic-controlled House are dicey.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, has questioned the economic benefit of growing hemp and says any economic benefits must be sufficient to out-weigh law enforcement concerns.

He said the Senate bill will be assigned to the House Agriculture Committee chaired by Rep. Tom McKee, D-Cynthiana.

McKee said his committee hasn’t received the bill though he expected it to be assigned to the committee Tuesday. He has scheduled a hearing on the bill for Feb. 27.

McKee said he hasn’t formed a settled opinion on the issue but seemed to have his own reservations.

“I’m going to listen to what we hear on Wednesday (Feb. 27),” McKee said.

He said some committee members have discussed a committee substitute to the Senate bill sponsored by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville.

“I think maybe there’s an education component that might be added to the bill,” McKee said in response to a reporter’s question about whether more study on the issue is needed.

“The thing I think we’ve got to remember is that it’s against federal law and what indications do we have that it will be changed this year?” asked McKee.

Comer said he planned to discuss the issue with McKee before the Feb. 27 committee meeting.

McKee said his committee is not planning to hear from members of the Kentucky congressional delegation at its hearing on the hemp bill.

Paul and Congressman John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, and Thomas Massie, R-Vanceburg, testified before Hornback’s committee. The measure also has the endorsement of McConnell.

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.