By Ronnie Ellis
Feb. 11, 2013 — The pitch was the same but an all-star cast of salesmen went before the Senate Agriculture Committee Monday advocating passage of a bill to authorize regulation of industrial hemp in Kentucky.
Senate Bill 50, sponsored by the committee’s chairman, Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, won unanimous approval, that in itself a minor surprise as two members thought to have questions about the bill, Sen. Sara Beth Gregory, R-Monticello, and Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville voted for it.
Testifying in support of the bill were U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, and U.S. Representatives John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, and Thomas Massie, R-Vanceburg.
Perhaps the biggest name, however, was former CIA Director James Woolsey, a member of the North American Hemp Council.
Together they appeared to be too much political firepower to overcome the objections of Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer and Warren County Commonwealth Attorney Chris Cohron — at least in the Republican-controlled Senate.
However, later Monday House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, indicated the bill may face a tough challenge in the Democratic-controlled House to overcome law enforcement concerns.
Woolsey ridiculed Brewer’s fears that marijuana growers might try to “insert” the illegal and much more potent plant into legal fields of hemp.
Such a marijuana grower, Woolsey said, “would have to be uninformed about botany or high on marijuana” to try that.
Advocates say hemp will cross-pollinate with marijuana, weakening marijuana’s THC content — the chemical ingredient that gives pot smokers their high. That, Woolsey and others say, discourages marijuana growers from using hemp as camouflage.
Brewer and Laura Sudkamp, of the KSP laboratory, counter that while hemp may weaken marijuana, the same cross-pollination process will increase the THC potency of hemp. Brewer said smoking hemp can produce a high — it just requires more of it.
The proposal is pushed by Republican Agriculture James Comer who says it offers an opportunity for a cash crop alternative to tobacco in Kentucky and can be used for paper products, fiber and other uses, including making composite materials from oil extracted from seeds, materials that can be used to manufacture car components like dashboards.
The bill would not legalize the growing of hemp, once a major agricultural product in Kentucky. It would, however, establish the “framework of regulations,” according to Comer, should the federal government legalize industrial hemp.
Under the bill, state and local law enforcement would receive notification of licenses with exact GPS coordinates of hemp crop locations. Crops not used for research purposes would have to be at least ten acres in size. Paul, wearing a shirt made from hemp, said he has offered legislation to legalize hemp production in the United States — as has Massey in the U.S. House — but will seek a federal waiver for Kentucky from President Barack Obama should the legislation fail.
Those calling for legalization said nine other states have already passed such legislation and it is important for Kentucky to do the same in order to be in position to take advantage of a market if the federal government makes it legal to grow.
Yarmuth said that “is only a matter of time.”
Brewer told the committee that is impossible to distinguish between the two plants “with the naked eye,” that only expensive laboratory tests can determine which is which conclusively. He said that will be a costly addition to the KSP lab which already faces backlogs.
Woolsey told the committee that there hasn’t been a single documented case of marijuana growing hidden among hemp in Canada where the product is legal, to which Brewer said, “That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.”
Hornback said he believes he can “work with law enforcement” to address their concerns.
Sudkamp disputed Comer’s estimate that the Agriculture Department could conduct the tests for only $20 each. Brewer also questioned the reliability of claims of a ready market for hemp by its advocates.
Westerfield, a freshman who defeated hemp advocate Joey Pendleton in the fall election and a former prosecutor, said not a single farmer had spoken to him about replacing higher price yield crops like corn with hemp and he has received conflicting information about the potency of hemp.
He said he’s “had my doubts” but after Monday’s testimony he said he was voting to pass the bill from committee though he was reserving final judgment. Gregory also expressed some reservation but said she would vote yes in order to move the bill out of committee.
Stumbo seemed doubtful about the bill.
“From what we know about the hemp issue at least at this point, it doesn’t appear there’s a market for hemp,” Stumbo said. “
He said the bill will get a “full and fair hearing” in the House Agriculture Committee.
“I would have to be assured,” Stumbo continued, “that the market viability and the benefit to the state would far outweigh the concerns of our law enforcement community.”
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.