Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Opinion

November 18, 2012

Not so radical

Support for industrial hemp has moved into mainstream

ASHLAND — Voter approval in Colorado and Washington of ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana has encouraged Kentuckians to increase their efforts to bring industrial hemp back to a state where it was once a major cash crop. If Colorado and Washington are blazing a path for the legalization of marijuana, they want Kentucky to be a national leader in the legalization of industrial hemp.

There is no serious effort in Kentucky to legalize marijuana, mind you, but the same federal laws that ban the growing of marijuana also outlaw industrial hemp, a first cousin of pot in the plant kingdom. Despite the passage of the ballot initiatives in Washington and Colorado, it will take a change in those federal laws for marijuana to be legalized for recreational use in those two and any other states, just as it would to legalize industrial hemp in Kentucky.

Nevertheless, support for industrial hemp is growing in Kentucky led by two popular Republican politicians, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and state Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer.

The Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission met for the first time in a decade Wednesday. At the meeting, Comer —  a farmer and former member of the Kentucky House who became state agriculture commissioner at the first of the year — said passing hemp legislation will be his top priority in next year’s General Assembly.

“We can’t let our feet drag on this,” Comer told a dozen commission members and an overflow crowd of onlookers. “We can’t let the General Assembly say, ‘Well we want to create a task force to study it.’ By that time ... this will be another thing that the Kentucky General Assembly has loafed around on and let slip away.”

Comer was a strong supporter of industrial hemp during his successful 2011 campaign for agriculture commissioner, when he was the only Republican elected to statewide office.

At the same meeting, it was announced that Paul, who has co-sponsored federal legislation to remove restrictions on hemp cultivation, is donating $50,000 from his political action committee to the hemp commission. That donation is being matched by Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, a natural soap manufacturer that uses organic hemp oil in its products.

Support for the legalization of industrial hemp is far from universal in Kentucky, led by law enforcement officials and anti-drug advocates who say it is difficult to tell industrial hemp and marijuana apart when growing, and hemp crops could easily mask pot crops.

Maj. Anthony Terry, commander of the Kentucky State Police Special Enforcement Troop and a member of the hemp commission member, said after the meeting that law enforcement continues to have reservations about legalizing hemp. “We’re not supportive of it at this point,” Terry said.

Comer said the agriculture department wants to work with law enforcement. “There’s nothing to hide,” he said. “This crop has suffered from false stereotypes and misperceptions for years and years.”

Kentucky once was a leading producer of industrial hemp, a tall, leafy plant with a multitude of uses that has been outlawed for decades because of its association with marijuana. The plant can be used to make paper, biofuels, clothing, lotions and other products. At the meeting, commission members passed around an automobile armrest made of hemp.

Those seeking to legalize the plant argue that it would create a new crop for farmers, replacing a hemp supply now imported from Canada and other countries. During World War II, the U.S. government encouraged farmers to grow hemp for the war effort because other industrial fibers were in short supply. But the crop hasn’t been grown in the U.S. since the 1950s when the federal government moved to classify hemp as a controlled substance because it’s related to marijuana.

But the winds of change are blowing in Kentucky. For many years, the late Gatewood Galbraith — a Lexington lawyer who was perennial but unsuccessful candidate for governor and other offices — was the state’s most vocal supporter of hemp, but with Paul and Comer joining in the effort, hemp has moved into the political mainstream.

Comer said he wants Kentucky farmers to be planting hemp by 2014, but he recognizes that would require federal approval. “We will only do this in Kentucky if the United States Congress and the federal government give us permission to do this,” he said.

To date, Paul’s effort to legalize industrial hemp have gotten nowhere in Congress.

We are not as certain of the commercial value of hemp as Comer and other hemp advocates supporters are. Many of the products once made from hemp now use synthetic fibers. For example, we can’t imagine rope made of hemp replacing today’s ropes using synthetic fibers.

Nevertheless, the value of hemp as a cash crop should be determined by the marketplace, not by politicians in Washington. If states like Kentucky want to legalize industrial hemp, they should be allowed to do so.

As for marijuana, well attitudes are also changing about it. Just ask the folks in Colorado and Washington. But that’s another issue separate from hemp.

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