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'Let this bill be heard;' Hemp farming in limbo

by Joe Arnold

WHAS11.com

Posted on February 20, 2013 at 12:24 AM

Updated Wednesday, Feb 20 at 12:41 AM

FRANKFORT, Ky (WHAS11) -- Confident that his industrial hemp initiative has enough votes to be approved by the Kentucky House, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer implored Democratic leaders on Tuesday to listen to the will of Kentucky voters and their representatives.

"We're going to continue to apply pressure to the members of the House of Representatives and the governor's office to let this bill be heard," Comer (R) said to reporters outside the Capitol building.

Comer met with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom McKee Tuesday afternoon to address McKee’s reservations about Senate Bill 50 which was overwhelmingly approved by the Senate.  The measure sets up a framework for licensing and regulating hemp farming in Kentucky if the federal government lifts a ban on the crop's cultivation.

"We help direct agriculture policy in this state," McKee (D-Cynthiana) told WHAS11.  "And we don't want to close the door on any viable agricultural commodity that may be out there.  We're going to look at everything."

McKee said he plans a hearing next week on the bill, where he may instead suggest an "educational component" to the bill and further study on the issue.

The Cynthiana Democrat said the committee will likely investigate the wide disparity between cost estimates for testing whether a plant is hemp or marijuana.

Industrial hemp is farmed in more than 30 western nations including Canada where a ban was lifted in 1998.  The plant is used for fiber, food, fuel and a variety of other uses.  Because of hemp's similar in appearance to its cannabis captiva cousin, marijuana, Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer is opposed to hemp farming which he argues would complicate marijuana eradication efforts.

A five year strategic plan unveiled Tuesday by the Kentucky Agriculture Council includes a "sidebar" on hemp despite Governor Steve Beshear (D) remaining unconvinced on the hemp initiative and the opposition of House Speaker Greg Stumbo (D-Prestonsburg).

"I endorse the effort that they have made," Beshear said to reporters, "and there may be things in there that different people may disagree on but the important thing here is the effort."

Beshear said Kentucky needs to be pro-active and not reactive as farmers diversify crops once reliant on tobacco.

But isn't industrial hemp an example of that diversification?

"Well, hemp is certainly a possible example of diversification," Beshear responded.  "We've got two issues we need to address there."

Beshear's issues, identifying whether there is a sufficient market for hemp and satisfying law enforcement's concerns.

"It's the state police leadership that has a problem with this," Comer said.  "The average rank and file county sheriffs and chiefs of police around the state are okay with this bill."

Hemp has only a trace amount of the THC compound that gives pot smokers a "high"

Despite the House Agriculture Committee Chairman's reservations about the bill, McKee acknowledged that hemp farming will likely be legalized in the United States if the market for the crop becomes as strong as proponents predict.

"I would think that if we see a growth in the demand that eventually it probably will," McKee told WHAS11.  "Right now, it appears that there is adequate production in the world in other countries."

"If its going to have a place, we need some facts," McKee said.

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