FRANKFORT, Ky (WHAS11) -- A bill that would license Kentucky farmers to grow hemp cleared its first hurdle on Monday, yet failed to win the key support of the Kentucky State Police Commissioner, Rodney Brewer.
After testimony from both a high-powered bipartisan coalition of hemp supporters and opposition headed by Brewer, Senate Bill 50 was passed unanimously, 10-0, by the Senate Agriculture Committee, chaired by the bill's sponsor, Sen. Paul Hornback (R-Shelbyville).
Former CIA Director James Woolsey topped the hemp lobby, followed by endorsements and hopes of economic benefits from U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R), U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie (R), U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth (D) and Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer (R).
Brewer, however, suggested the costs of hemp production must be considered alongside any projected benefits.
Because the plant is a cousin of marijuana, he warned that hemp farming would complicate drug eradication. Hemp production is banned in the Unites States. Hemp has a negligible content of the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.
"An illegitimate farmer but probably more than likely someone else without his or her knowledge could easily insert marijuana into a legitimate hemp crop without their knowledge," Brewer said. "It would be very difficult for us to ascertain and figure out what was hemp and what was marijuana."
"They are identical in appearance to the naked eye," Brewer continued. "The only way to identify is through lab testing."
State police estimated it would cost $750 for them to test if a plant is marijuana or hemp.
Comer, the Agriculture Commissioner said his office can conduct the tests for $20.
Hemp supporters contend a marijuana grower would stay far away from industrial hemp because cross pollination weakens marijuana.
"Would he do that?" Woolsey said. "Only really if he knows nothing about botany or he's high on marijuana."
"You can get high off of hemp," Brewer claimed.
Woolsey countered with one of the more memorable lines of the day, comparing Brewer's claim as "pretty much exactly like saying you can get drunk on O’Douls. It’s very difficult.”
O'Douls beer contains only a trace amount of alcohol.
The hemp supporters also testified that because Kentucky hemp farms and farmers would be registered with the state after a background check, the state could easily keep track of them and identify illegal growers.
After the hearing, pro-hemp Kentuckians rallied in the capitol rotunda. One of five statues in the rotunda is of legislator Henry Clay, a hemp pioneer in the 19th century and one of the crop's biggest supporters when Kentucky led the world in hemp production.
Hemp cultivation faded when protective tariffs were lifted in the early 20th century. The U.S. Government, however, called upon farmers to again grow hemp for the World War II effort.
"Farmers up in Woodford County is hurting for a crop to grow," said farm owner Lonnie Bowman. "And my Dad growed hemp on the farm that I'm living on now back in 40... during the war."
Woolsey said 35 western industrialized nations grow hemp today for food, fiber and fuel.
Paul wore a Canadian bought hemp shirt to the hearing.
"So, basically we're exporting our profit to Canada," Paul said. "I see no reason why we wouldn't want to be a leader in this."
"I am convinced that industrialized hemp represents an enormous economic future for whoever is willing to take advantage of it," Yarmuth said, adding that he believed that hemp would eventually reclaim its position as a major cash crop.
"All of us here are strongly committed to making sure that Kentucky is not left behind," Yarmuth testified.
Yarmuth and Massie have co-sponsored a federal bill (HR 525) that would define industrial hemp as having a THC content of less than .3 percent and remove hemp from the federal list of what are considered "controlled substances."
Massie said he and his wife are still looking for a replacement for tobacco on their farm.
"We're not looking for money here today," Massie told the committee, "We want to pass this bill just to get out of the way of farmers who have already identified a crop."
After unanimous approval by the Senate Agriculture committee, the hemp bill's biggest political hurdle remains state police opposition.
"I'll extend an open invitation to Commissioner Brewer and we'll talk in detail," Comer said.