Since taking office more than a year ago, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer has pushed to get industrial hemp back into production in a state that once led the nation in hemp production.
That move has been taken to the halls of the state legislature as a bill has been introduced in both the House and Senate that would allow farmers in Kentucky to raise the crop once again — in the event that federal restrictions are lifted.
Both state Democrats and Republicans have shown signs of growing support for the legalization of industrial hemp, but in a short session and with such issues as tax reform, pension reform and Medicaid on the front burners, getting any other piece of legislation that is remotely controversial may be a stretch at best. But Comer said realistically he thinks there is a 50-50 chance the bill will pass this year.
“We’ve got a good bill, and I’m hopeful it goes through this session. Legislators use the fact that it’s a short session as an excuse not to do their jobs. It takes five days to pass a bill, so they have six weeks,” he said. “If farmers got up early in the morning and said, ‘Well, it might rain this afternoon; I don’t think I will start the tractor,’ that’s not how it goes. They work as long as it takes to get the job done, and that is what our legislators are going to have to do.”
Industrial hemp is getting support from many in Kentucky’s U.S. Congressional delegation, including Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Louisville), newly elected Congressman Andy Barr (R-6th District) and freshman Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who joined Comer last August at the Kentucky State Fair to announce support of the initiative.
Recently the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has voiced its support for the legislation as well. A statement on the organization’s website read, “The Chamber’s policy council and board of directors reviewed the issue, considered arguments for and against supporting legislation. After a lengthy discussion with Commissioner Comer and further discussion among the board members, the Kentucky Chamber Board adopted the following position with regard to industrial hemp production: The Kentucky Chamber supports exploring the commercialization of industrial hemp in Kentucky. Provided there is an adequate regulatory framework adopted to oversee the production and cultivation of industrial hemp, the Chamber supports legislation to position Kentucky as a leader in the production and commercialization of industrial hemp.”
Comer said that organization’s support demonstrates that the hemp issue is more than just an ag issue.
“We are elated that the Chamber of Commerce came out in support of it, so I think that gives a lot of credibility from a group not affiliated with agriculture, but its primary purpose is economic development. It shows that bill has economic development potentials and goes way outside the realm of agriculture,” he said.
Last November, the Kentucky Hemp Commission met after a decade of dormancy. One member of that commission, Brian Furnish, who is a tobacco farmer, former general manager of the Burley Tobacco Cooperative and current president of his own company, the International Tobacco Trading Group, said he knows the plant will grow well here and much of what is utilized to grow tobacco can be used with hemp.
“Hemp was king before tobacco was king, as far as a crop, and the thing I like about it is it can be grown on marginal land. You don’t have to take your best land and plant hemp. For a lot of farmers who have small acreage and grow tobacco, they need to keep that ground for tobacco. As far as equipment is concerned, you really don’t have to do a lot to modify equipment for harvest,” he said.
Furnish also said that any time a crop can be added that already has a big demand in the country, coupled with the possibility that Kentucky could be one of the first states to do it — that would be a very positive thing.
“This is not going to be a replacement for tobacco or corn and soybeans, but it’s a crop that is native to the area, it grows well here, and it’s a plant that will help clean up the soil,” he said.
Studies have suggested that hemp has the ability to detoxify soil. It also is used for a number of products, from auto dashboards to hand lotions.
Furnish noted that many businesses are willing to invest in the idea, which means no government support would be needed.
“They grow hemp in 30-some countries, and if they can do it there, why can’t we do it here?” he said.
The main reason it is not grown here has to do with its relationship to marijuana. The two plants belong to the same plant family, but hemp contains nearly nonexistent levels of THC — unlike marijuana. Since the passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, however, hemp cannot be grown without a permit from the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Because of that, law enforcement has been slow to come around to the idea. In fact, Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer has said that agency will not support the growing of hemp in the state because it is difficult to distinguish between the two plants.
Law enforcement is represented on the hemp commission. After its first meeting, commission member Major Anthony Terry of the Kentucky State Police said, in addition to identifying the legal plants versus the illegal ones, there is the issue of the added work and costs that would be involved when plants had to be tested to determine what is hemp and what is not.
Furnish said he understands the concerns of the state police, but there would be plenty of regulations involved in growing a crop, including having to get a permit to grow it and background checks on producers.
“I think it would be a win-win situation for Kentucky if we could be one of the first states, and it could help farms as well as create jobs,” he said. “I just hope they give the bill a chance in the legislature and not hide behind the fear that it would increase marijuana production.”
David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, a $50 million-a-year company that makes natural soap products and utilizes imported hemp seed oil, said the United States would have some catching up to do, but legalizing it could create a huge economic shot in the arm.
“I would say it’s in the tens of millions of dollars in direct raw materials, and the market is growing rapidly,” he said. “But it’s difficult to gauge. The food market potential is huge, building and construction is huge, and bio-composites are growing.”
Bronner is supportive enough of the initiative that he has put up $50,000 to aid the hemp commission in exploring the possibilities of growing industrial hemp.
He also pointed out that other states are looking at developing crops of their own, and whoever is first will be in a better position to benefit from it.
Comer said he loves the members of the general assembly since he spent so many years there, and he knows the members know this is the right thing to do.
“They want to help agriculture and they want to create jobs, but they’re scared there might be a few voters that might think they made a bad vote,” he said.