The state Senate has passed a bill aimed at creating a hemp industry in Kentucky, though the bill still appears to lack the support of key government leaders.
The Senate's 31-6 vote sends to the House a measure establishing oversight for Kentucky industrial hemp farmers if the crop is legalized at the federal level. The Senate vote comes on the heels of a poll stating that most Kentuckians believe legalized hemp would create jobs.
High-profile opponents remain unmoved.
And the hemp bill's fate in the state House isn't so clear.
The poll, conducted by RunSwitch Public Relations and Harper Polling, stated that 65 percent of Kentuckians believe that hemp would create jobs—and that only 16 percent believed that law enforcement concerns about hemp should take priority.
(From right) U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY, Congressman John Yarmuth, D-KY, Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer, and Congressman Thomas Massie, R-KY, testify in favor of an industrial hemp bill up for consideration in the Kentucky Senate Agriculture Committee.
After testimony from a bevy of high-level supporters, the state Senate agriculture committee unanimously approved Monday a bill that would establish oversight for Kentucky industrial hemp farmer if hemp were made legal federally.
Agriculture Commission James Comer—the leading proponent of industrial hemp in Kentucky—recruited U.S. Reps. Thomas Massie and John Yarmuth to speak in favor of the bill at the committee, as well as U.S. Sen. Rand Paul. But the bill has opposition from many law enforcement agencies, including the Kentucky State Police and Operation UNITE, a federally-funded program.
The crop could create jobs in Kentucky in agriculture and other industries through hemp's use as a strong material, said Comer, a Republican. The legislative approved in committee Monday, Senate Bill 50, is Comer's chief legislative priority.
The effort to legalize industrial hemp is gaining steam nationally and in Kentucky. State lawmakers will hold a hearing today in Frankfort about the issue, and some heavy-hitters are lined up to back the effort.
Appearing at Monday's hearing will be U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, U.S. Representatives John Yarmuth and Thomas Massie, and former CIA Director James Woolsey. Also appearing will be Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who has made the legalization of industrial hemp his number one legislative priority.
Law enforcement groups remain opposed to legalizing hemp because they say it will be impossible to distinguish between hemp and marijuana. Supporters say it's not difficult to tell the difference between the two plants.
Kentucky Public Radio Frankfort Bureau Chief Kenny Colston is covering today's hearing on hemp and we'll have updates online, at our Facebook page, and during our state and regional newscasts later today on All Things Considered.
A leading Kentucky supporter of legalizing industrial hemp admits the effort doesn't have the support of Gov. Beshear--at least not yet.
Agriculture Commissioner James Comer will join several members of Kentucky's Congressional delegation Monday at a legislative hearing in Frankfort about a hemp bill filed in the state Senate. That measure would create a regulatory infrastructure for growing and marketing hemp if federal laws regarding the crop are eventually changed.
Comer was asked by WKU Public Radio if he has talked to Gov. Beshear about whether or not he would sign such legislation into law.
"He says he's studying it," Comer said, followed by a laugh. "Governor Beshear is a good man, and we're still working with him. I'm confident if we can get the bill passed in the House and Senate that he'll be supportive of it. I think he realizes it's a popular issue."
WKU Public Radio's interview with Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer
The chances for some form of comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S. appear to be growing, with President Obama and a growing number of Congressional leaders saying they're willing to take on the emotional issue.
Any change to how immigrants receive citizenship or permanent legal status would have a big impact on America's farms and livestock operations, which depend heavily on immigrant labor.
WKU Public Radio's Kevin Willis spoke Wednesday with Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer about how immigration reform might impact farmers in the Bluegrass State.
Here are some excerpts from their conversation:
Given your personal experience as a farmer in Monroe County and your job as Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner, what do you make of the national discussions concerning new opportunities for immigrants to earn either citizenship or at least some form of permanent legal status?
"I've talked to Sen. McConnell and Sen. Paul about this issue, and we need immigration reform in the agriculture community in Kentucky. Anyone who drives up and down the road and sees farmers who are growing crops like tobacco, or vegetables, or has a dairy operation--they will see immigrant labor."
The effort to legalize industrial hemp is picking up more support--this time, from the highest-ranking Republican U.S. Senator.
Kentucky's Mitch McConnell issued a statement Thursday announcing he now backs the legalization effort.
"After long discussions with Senator Rand Paul and Commissioner James Comer on the economic benefits of industrialized hemp, I am convinced that allowing its production will be a positive development for Kentucky’s farm families and economy," said McConnell in his statement.
The recent talk in Frankfort about legalizing industrial hemp hasn't convinced the head of the Kentucky Narcotic Officer's Association. Tommy Loving, who also leads the Warren County Drug Task, says he fears marijuana growers will plant their crops next to hemp, making it difficult for law enforcement to distinguish between the two.
Some agriculture experts say planting the two crops together would destroy the potency of the marijuana over time, but Loving told WKU Public Radio that wouldn't deter those looking to hide from law enforcement.
"If you plant marijuana with hemp surrounding it, for instance, in one growing season, you're not going to diminish that much of the THC content in the marijuana. So your marijuana crop is still going to be a sellable commodity,” said Loving.
Speaking after Monday's meeting of the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission, state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer responded to law enforcement opposition to hemp legalization.
For supporters of legalizing hemp, it's a case of good news and bad news.
The good news? A bill filed in the Kentucky legislature that would allow farmers to grow hemp if federal restrictions are lifted is likely to have a hearing next month in the Senate Agriculture Committee, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
However, it remains uncertain whether the measure will be allowed to receive a vote. Sen. Paul Hornback, a Georgetown Republican and chairman of the committee, says members of his own party might block the committee from voting on the issue.
The Senate Republican Caucus will meet Feb. 6 in a closed-door meeting to discuss the measure.
Understanding that veterans have a higher unemployment rate than the population as a whole, Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer is launching two programs to help veterans find work. The Homegrown by Heroes initiative will place a label on food items produced by Kentucky veterans.
It's like the Kentucky Proud symbol, but includes a flag in the background and a veteran saluting.
"We've been getting calls from many other states and this is something I believe will be a nation model as a way to help market farm products by our military veterans," Comer remarked at a news conference Tuesday at the Boone National Guard Center in Frankfort..
Comer is launching another program called Kentucky Proud Jobs for Vets. The initiative will maintain a database of farmers and agri-businesses looking for workers. The database will be shared with military support groups like USA Cares. Comer says many people like hiring veterans because of their strong work ethic and service to the country.