Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer says he will seek to legalize industrial hemp in 2013, and to kick off the effort he convened a Wednesday meeting of a hemp commission that hasn't met in years. Comer told members of Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission that passing hemp legislation will be his top priority in next year's General Assembly.
"We can't let our feet drag on this," Comer told a dozen commission members and an overflow crowd of onlookers. "We can't let the General Assembly say, `Well we want to create a task force to study it.' By that time ... this will be another thing that the Kentucky General Assembly has loafed around on and let slip away."
Comer, a Republican and farmer himself, was presiding over the first meeting of the commission in a decade. The board was created in 2001 to oversee industrial hemp research in Kentucky and make recommendations to the governor. Comer convened the 18-member panel to advocate for industrial hemp legalization and work on marketing and education efforts.
Kentucky once was a leading producer of industrial hemp, a tall, leafy plant with a multitude of uses that has been outlawed for decades because of its association with marijuana.
The plant can be used to make paper, biofuels, clothing, lotions and other products. At the meeting, commission members passed around an automobile armrest made of hemp.
Those seeking to legalize the plant argue that it would create a new crop for farmers, replacing a hemp supply now imported from Canada and other countries. During World War II, the U.S. government encouraged farmers to grow hemp for the war effort because other industrial fibers were in short supply. But the crop hasn't been grown in the U.S. since the 1950s when the federal government moved to classify hemp as a controlled substance because it's related to marijuana.
Hemp and marijuana are the same species, cannabis sativa, but are genetically distinct. Hemp has a negligible content of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.
Comer said he wants to see farmers planting industrial hemp in Kentucky by the spring of 2014, but added the state would not go ahead without federal approval.
"We will only do this in Kentucky if the United States Congress and the federal government give us permission to do this," he said.
Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who has co-sponsored federal legislation to remove restrictions on hemp cultivation, is donating $50,000 from his political action committee to the commission. That donation is being matched by Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, a natural soap manufacturer that uses organic hemp oil in its products.
Maj. Anthony Terry, commander of the Kentucky State Police Special Enforcement Troop and a commission member, said after the meeting that law enforcement has reservations about legalizing hemp.
"We're not supportive of it at this point," Terry said.
Comer said the agriculture department wants to work with law enforcement.
"There's nothing to hide," Comer said. "This crop has suffered from false stereotypes and misperceptions for years and years."
Other members of the commission at the meeting were John Riley, a former magistrate in Spencer County; state Rep. Tom McKee, D-Cynthiana, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee; state Sen. John Schickel, R-Union; and M. Scott Smith, dean of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.
After the meeting, Comer went to the state Capitol pitch the legislation to a joint meeting of the House and Senate Agriculture committees.