Gov. Steve Beshear listened to both proponents and opponents of a bill that could pave the way toward a return to the time when industrial hemp was a major cash crop in Kentucky — and opted to take a middle ground, the path of the least political resistance. Ignoring pleas from different constituencies to sign Senate Bill 50 and to veto it, the governor chose the third option: He allowed the bill to become law without his signature.
That’s an option always available to governors, of course, but one that is rarely used, especially on a bill that has gathered as much public attention as SB 50 did. After all, governors love to bask in the publicity that comes with the signing of a major bill into law. And by doing nothing, Beshear runs the risk of appearing to be wishy-washy.
So now that the industrial hemp bill will become law on May 17, what will it mean for Kentucky? Maybe not much.
While the bill sets up the mechanism for licensing Kentucky farmers to grow industrial hemp, the crop is still banned by federal law, and federal law trumps state law. Until Congress moves to lift the ban on industrial hemp, the Kentucky General Assembly’s approval of the banned crop will have no more impact than voters in Colorado and Washington approving the legalization of marijuana. Despite the votes in those two states, raising and using marijuana is still against the law in all 50 states.
But just as the votes in Colorado and Washington reflect changing public attitudes regarding pot, the General Assembly’s approval of the industrial hemp bill indicates changing attitudes about hemp. Public attitudes in Kentucky have come a long way since the late Gatewood Galbraith, a perennial candidate for governor and other statewide offices who never came close to being elected. Galbraith was just about the only candidate promoting hemp and actor Woody Harrellson was widely criticized during his visits to Kentucky promoting hemp as a cash crop.
Of course, both Galbraith and Harrellson were widely thought to be more interested in promoting marijuana than hemp. Not so Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Jamie Comer, a farmer and a former Republican state representative, who openly campaigned for the legalization of industrial hemp in becoming the only Republican to win statewide office in 2011. Comer was the driving force behind HB 50. His efforts picked up steam with the support of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, U.S. Reps. John Yarmuth, D-3rd, and Thomas Massie, R-4th, and such influential organizations as the Kentucky Farm Bureau and the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
Proponents say industrial hemp, which can be used to make everything from paper to clothing, will become a major cash crop in Kentucky, just as it was before being banned by the federal government. With McConnell’s support, Paul has filed a bill to lift the federal ban on industrial hemp. That’s essential for HB 50 to have any impact in Kentucky.
However, opponents of SB 50, led by the Kentucky State Police, contend it is difficult to distinguish industrial hemp from marijuana, and farmers will be growing pot in their hemp fields. In fact, some opponents seem convinced that SB 50 is just a ruse by marijuana advocates to make it easier to grow pot in a state where some contend it already is the number one cash crop.
In announcing he will allow SB 50 to become law without his signature, Beshear said, “I strongly support efforts to create legal cash crops for our farmers.” Comer says the law is necessary because it creates a “regulatory framework” to license and monitor hemp cultivation when and if the federal government relaxes or removes the ban.
What the law does is send a message to Congress that Kentucky supports legalization of industrial hemp. But unless Congress lifts the hemp ban, that’s the only thing SB 50 will accomplish.
Some think HB50 is one of the most important laws approved by the 2013 General Assembly, but in the words of William Shakespeare, it could all prove to be much ado about nothing.