Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

March 7, 2013

AG opinion doesn’t clear up Hemp debate

By RONNIE ELLIS
CNHI News Service

FRANKFORT — An advisory opinion from Attorney General Jack Conway didn’t do anything to clear up disagreements between Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and Democratic Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo about legislating a “regulatory framework” to grow hemp in Kentucky.

Comer has pushed hard for a bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Paul Hornback, which would set up such a framework, including allowing Comer to issue permits to grown hemp in 10-acre or larger plots.

Comer and Hornback claim it could position Kentucky to be first in the nation to grow the crop if a federal ban is lifted, creating thousands of jobs and providing farmers a valuable alternative crop.

Kentucky State Police and most other law enforcement spokesmen oppose the bill because they say it will make it more difficult to deal with illegal marijuana cultivation and Stumbo and others scoff at the economic benefit claims by Comer and hemp supporters.

The bill easily passed the state Senate but it created controversy in the House Agriculture Committee the chairman of which, Rep. Tom McKee, D-Cynthiana — presumably with Stumbo’s blessing — planned to amend the bill to call for further study.

But several committee members revolted, demanding a vote on Hornback’s original bill which ultimately passed. McKee voted for it along with every other Democrat on the committee.

Subsequently Stumbo, who contends Kentucky law already allows the cultivation of hemp if the federal government lifts its ban, requested an opinion on that question from Conway.

Conway issued his opinion Thursday — and predictably both Comer and Stumbo each claims it sides with him.

Maybe each has a claim. Conway’s ruling seemed to come down with a foot on either side of the fence.

It points out that current Kentucky law mandates that any change in the federal law be reflected in Kentucky laws and regulations — which would seem to support Stumbo’s position.

“What (Conway) said was, that’s right — if the federal government legalizes it then Kentucky automatically legalizes it.” Stumbo said. “All you have to do is comply with whatever requirements the federal government has.’

But Conway’s opinion goes on to say that if the federal ban on hemp is lifted but the federal government enacts no regulations on its cultivation, industrial hemp would essentially be unregulated in Kentucky — which would seem to support Comer.

Without Hornback’s legislation, Comer said, “Achieving a waiver from the federal government to be the first state to grow hemp will be almost impossible because there will be no safeguards in place. Other states have already passed similar programs. If we don’t act now, Speaker Stumbo will kill our chances to be first for these jobs.”

Stumbo said the federal government will never allow hemp cultivation “without a (federal) regulatory framework. You can bet on that.”

The bill went to the House Rules Committee Thursday where under House rules it can stay for a total of five days.

That means it could die there, because Thursday was the 26th day of the 30-day session.

Still Stumbo said there is still time to work out a compromise. But he also said any compromise he’d accept must address law enforcement concerns.

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.