Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

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December 30, 2013

Hemp supporters remained frustrated

FRANKFORT — It’s been nine months since the Kentucky General Assembly passed a law setting up a regulatory process for growing industrial hemp should the federal government relax its restrictions.

But that doesn’t mean the crop is any closer to production in a state which once led the nation in the cultivation of the fiber and members of the Kentucky Hemp Commission are frustrated.

The federal government includes hemp — a biological cousin of marijuana — in its list of banned substances under the Controlled Substances Act. Supporters of hemp say it contains only minimal amounts of THC, the active ingredient which produces the high from smoking marijuana.

Supporters, headed by Kentucky Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, say hemp can provide a cash crop for farmers who can sell its fiber to processors which can turn it into composite materials for interior car parts or cloth products as well as selling its oil for use in cosmetics and some food products.

A University of Kentucky study questions the economic impact of growing hemp, saying there is little market at the moment for the fiber although a small number of farmers might find it profitable selling the seeds.

Comer pushed passage of Senate Bill 50 last spring, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Paul Hornback of Shelbyville. But the law only allows hemp cultivation in Kentucky if the federal government relaxes or ends its prohibition.

Commission member Jimmy Higdon said at Monday’s meeting it makes little sense the federal government has indicated it will not prosecute those who grow marijuana in states which have legalized it but won’t make the same exception for hemp.

Greg Lee, who is on the board for the Kentucky Hemp Growers’ Association, said some farmers want to test the law by growing hemp this growing season, even without federal approval.

He suggested the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which reserves rights to individual states which are not delegated to the federal government would be a legal defense.

But Luke Morgan, a contract attorney for the commission, and Commission Chairman Brian Furnish said SB 50 contains language insisting Kentucky will follow federal law on hemp.

Morgan reviewed for the commission a series of letters from U.S. Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul and Congressman John Yarmuth and Thomas Massie “seeking clarification” from the Drug Enforcement Agency on whether it might pursue prosecution of hemp growers, but he said they have received no formal response.

That led to lengthy discussions by the commission members Monday on how to proceed and exposed a divide among the group between those who want to move aggressively to test the law while others want to pursue a more conservative approach.

That’s not really new, Furnish said after the meeting.

“I think it’s been that way from the beginning,” said Furnish, a Harrison County farmer who is interested in growing hemp.

“But in the end, the consensus has always been to proceed in a conservative manner,” he said.

Comer wasn’t present at Monday’s meeting, but his chief of staff, Holly VonLuehrte, said he’s had conversations with Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway about seeking federal clarification on the issue. Conway earlier issued a letter saying without a change in the federal position someone growing hemp in Kentucky could still face prosecution.

The commission approved a draft of legislation to return the regulatory process for hemp to the Department of Agriculture, hoping to secure its passage in the 2014 General Assembly which convenes Jan. 7. SB 50 places that power in the hands of the commission working with the University of Kentucky.

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.

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