By RONNIE ELLIS
CNHI News Service
FRANKFORT If the Republican state Senate gets its way, hemp could once again grow tall in Kentucky fields the plant inhabited for years.
The Senate passed a bill Thursday to authorize a regulatory “framework” for growing hemp if the federal government — which current bans growing the plant because it’s biologically akin to marijuana — legalizes hemp production or grants the state a waiver.
The bill passed 31-6 with four Republicans and two Democrats, mostly from southeastern Kentucky, voting no.
At the same time in Washington Thursday, Kentucky’s two Republican U.S. Senators, Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell, along with Oregon Democratic Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, introduced legislation to allow American farmers to cultivate and profit from industrial hemp.
The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013 would remove federal restrictions on the domestic cultivation of industrial hemp. It would remove hemp from the Schedule I controlled substance list and define it as a non-drug so long as it contained less than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
The state measure has been a major issue for Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who has campaigned loud and hard to allow Kentucky farmers to grow the crop.
Hemp used to be a major crop in Kentucky. Henry Clay was a major producer and seller of the plant, which can be used to manufacture paper, composite materials and oils for a variety of products and uses.
But after World War II, the government banned hemp because of its similarity to marijuana. Hemp has a much lower percentage of THC, the chemical that produces the marijuana smoker’s high.
Proponents say smokers can’t get high smoking hemp and that it offers Kentucky a potentially lucrative agricultural crop.
But law enforcement agencies say it is impossible to distinguish by sight between the two and say it will make their marijuana eradication efforts more difficult.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, conceded the potential market for hemp is really unknown. But he asked colleagues Thursday to “give us an opportunity to see how this will work.”
He said Kentucky must be in position to take advantage of whatever market exists should the federal government reverse course and allow cultivation and processing of the plant.
Other than Hornback, the only senators who spoke in support of the bill were Democrats.
Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, said hemp used to be an “economic driver” in Kentucky and her grandfather grew the crop in Carter County during World War II.
Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, said fears about people getting high on hemp are unfounded because it’s not strong enough.
“Industrial hemp won’t make us high, but it might make us happy,” Stein said.
Former governor and now Sen. Julian Carroll, D-Frankfort, and Minority Leader R.J. Palmer, D-Winchester also spoke in favor.
But when the vote came, four Republicans voted no, and Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, passed.
All but one of the Republicans live in the congressional district represented by U.S. Congressman Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, who opposes legalizing hemp for fear it will make it more difficult to combat marijuana.
Rogers is the creator of UNITE, a drug education, treatment and enforcement agency, and he represents a region of Kentucky wracked by drug abuse.
Voting no were Sen. Chris Girdler, R-Somerset, Rogers’ district director; Albert Robinson, R-London; Brandon Smith, R-Hazard; and Democrats Ray Jones of Pikeville and Johnny Ray Turner of Prestonsburg. David Givens, R-Greensburg, also voted against the measure.
Stivers didn’t explain his reason for passing, but he, too, lives in Rogers’ district while his wife is a field representative for McConnell.
The measure now goes to the Democratic-controlled House.
Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, is a former attorney general and also lives in Rogers’ district. He has been skeptical of economic benefit claims by proponents of legalizing hemp.
“The evidence doesn’t show there’s enough of a market for hemp to overcome law enforcement concerns,” Stumbo said. “I think (the bill) will have a little tougher time down here.”
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org <mailto:email@example.com> . Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort <http://www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort> .