By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service
Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, and Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer will get their hemp bill, but without Gov. Steve Beshear’s endorsement.
Beshear said Friday he won’t veto the bill, allowing it to become law, but he won’t sign it either.
“I strongly support efforts to create legal cash crops for our farmers,” Beshear said. “At the same time, we have a tremendous drug problem in Kentucky and I want to make sure that we don’t do anything that will increase that drug problem.”
He said Senate Bill 50 “won’t allow industrial hemp to be grown or sold unless and until the federal government takes the very big step of legalizing the crop in some way.”
If that happens, Beshear said, there will be time for the legislature to “make any further changes necessary to ensure the public safety and alleviate (law enforcement concerns).”
“So I’m going to allow the bill to become law without my signature,” Beshear said.
Because of its similarity to marijuana, federal law prohibits cultivation of hemp, which was once grown widely in Kentucky, both in the 19th century and during World War II. Hemp contains much lower amounts of the chemical THC. The psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, but opponents say it can still be used for intoxication and is difficult to distinguish from marijuana.
But Comer, Hornback and their supporters claim it is necessary to pass a “regulatory framework” to license and monitor hemp cultivation when and if the federal government relaxes or removes the ban.
Comer, Republican U.S. Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul and Congressmen John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, and Thomas Massie, R-Vanceburg, have said they will urge the administration of President Barack Obama to grant Kentucky a waiver to grow the crop.
Comer quickly announced he plans to make that appeal soon.
Proponents say the crop, at least as it is planted in fields, isn’t that hard to distinguish from marijuana and actually poses a threat to the potency of marijuana if the two cross-pollinate. They say hemp offers a potential cash crop for Kentucky farmers and the creation of jobs through processing plants.
But opponents question the extent of the hemp market and some law enforcement agencies, principally the Kentucky State Police, say its cultivation will complicate marijuana enforcement and eradication efforts.
Beshear said throughout the legislative session that he shares the concerns of law enforcement, and he said Friday he still does.
Those concerns were also shared by House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, who also argued there is no demonstrated market for the crop.
He and House Democrats held up passage of the bill until the final hours of the 2013 General Assembly when a revised version of Hornback’s bill finally passed the House and was quickly agree to by the Senate.
On Tuesday of this week, Hornback met with Beshear to urge him to sign the bill. Hornback said at the time he though the governor’s signature would send a strong signal to the federal government that the bill has bipartisan support.
Comer, however, on Friday didn’t seem discouraged that Beshear didn’t sign the bill.
“Now that this bill will become law, the federal government will know that Kentucky’s leaders from both parties are united in our intent to bring industrial hemp production back to the commonwealth in a responsible way,” Comer said in a statement released by his office.
“This shows what can happen when the people get behind positive legislation that has the potential to create jobs and opportunity for Kentucky,” Comer said.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.