, Corbin, KY

State News

September 26, 2013

Conway, Comer spar over hemp

CORBIN — By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service

It’s still illegal to grow industrial hemp in Kentucky and farmers who do might subject themselves to potential criminal liability.

That, at least, is the opinion of the state’s chief law enforcement officer, Attorney General Jack Conway, who says cultivation of hemp remains illegal under federal law, the Controlled Substances Act.

But Agriculture Commissioner James Comer doesn’t see it that way.

“Jack Conway is wrong to threaten to prosecute farmers,” Comer said shortly after Conway released his advisory letter. “Hemp is legal in Kentucky, and the federal government has made it clear that it is not going to prosecute farmers for growing hemp. It makes no sense that Attorney General Conway would throw up an unnecessary government obstacle to an industry that has the potential to create jobs and revenue for Kentucky.”

The controversy is more than legal, it’s also political. Comer, a Republican, and Conway, a Democrat, are eyeing the possibility of running for governor in 2015. Comer has championed the cause of industrial hemp, pushing legislation passed this spring by the General Assembly to allow the regulation and licensing of hemp.

After a recent “prosecutorial guidance” by the federal Department of Justice telling federal prosecutors not to pursue criminal charges against small possessions of marijuana in states which have legalized the drug, Comer and an attorney for the Department of Agriculture, Luke Morgan, contend that means the federal government also won’t prosecute cultivation of hemp.

Comer and Morgan also cite a 2003 federal Drug Enforcement Agency memorandum that says hemp is not marijuana and not covered by the Controlled Substances Act.

Conway disputes their interpretation, however.

“The 2003 memorandum and regulation by DEA deals with hemp products,” Conway said. “But it makes it very, very clear that the cultivation of hemp remains illegal.”

Conway issued his opinion in response to a request from Kentucky State Police and Gov. Steve Beshear. The governor issued the following statement after Conway’s announcement:

“The Attorney General’s interpretation of the federal law is consistent with our understanding. It’s clear that a formal change in the federal law is needed before our farm families can reasonably consider growing this crop. Our new state law means Kentucky farmers are positioned to respond immediately when and if that change occurs, putting them ahead of other states without similar legislation.”

Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, a former attorney general, also said he agrees with Conway’s opinion.

But Holly von Luerhte, spokeswoman for Comer, said Conway’s opinion “makes no sense. We disagree on the interpretation of the 2003 memorandum.

“At a time when the state police can’t afford to put gas in their cars, are they really going to arrest farmers for growing hemp?” she asked.

But Conway said his job is as attorney general “is to state what the law is, not what I would want it to be. Federal law preempts state law and federal law makes it illegal to grow hemp.”

He said he supports the cultivation of hemp if Kentucky can secure a waiver from the federal government as Hawaii did several years ago and so long as it is licensed and regulated in such a way that police will know where it is legally grown.

But he said that still requires a change to the federal Controlled Substances Act or a federal waiver.

Conway declined to say if he would prosecute anyone who grows hemp but his written opinion warned that anyone who grows hemp could face prosecution.

“Any individual or entity that invests in anticipation of growing industrial hemp in the near future, and any individual or entity that intentionally grows hemp within the Commonwealth, will expose themselves to potential criminal liability and the possible seizure of property by federal or state law enforcement agencies,” Conway wrote in his opinion.

As part of the legislation passed in the 2013 General Assembly, the resurrected Hemp Commission is ready to write licensing and regulatory guidelines for hemp cultivation. After the recent opinion from Morgan, the KDA attorney, the commission said it plans to ask for some “tweaks” to the 2013 law and expects hemp cultivation to begin next spring.

Most polls show widespread support for cultivating hemp in Kentucky and Comer and other backers say it could offer an economic boon to Kentucky farmers. But a recent University of Kentucky study found it’s unlikely to create many jobs. The study said there is potential for farmers to make a profit from hemp seeds but not from growing hemp for its fiber.

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at

Text Only
State News
  • Healthcare signup in state extended

    While the national health exchange established by the Affordable Care Act — known to some as Obamacare — suffered glitches, crashes and delays, the Kentucky-run exchange, Kynect, was often used as a national model.

    April 4, 2014

  • Kentucky budget passed with little debate

    The Kentucky General Assembly, divided between chambers along party lines, overwhelmingly passed a $20-billion, new two-year budget not only on time but with almost no debate.

    April 1, 2014

  • Lawmakers agree on snow bill

    Kentucky school officials, parents and students finally have what they’ve been asking for: A bill to allow them to get out of school before the summer fully sets in, even if they don’t make up some of the days they missed during the severe winter.

    March 31, 2014

  • Tensions rise during budget negotiations

    Tensions increased Friday between the Republican Senate and Democratic House over continuing negotiations on a new, two-year budget. It even got personal at times.

    March 31, 2014

  • Kentucky Power plan a potential landscape-changer

    Electrical ratepayers, local governments and those employed in the coal industry might have a hard time understanding the complicated transaction through which Kentucky Power Company is purchasing half the generating capacity of a coal-fired West Virginia plant.

    March 28, 2014 2 Stories

  • Senate passes budget with no locked-in gas tax hikes

    The state Senate on Tuesday passed its version of a two-year revenue measure, and unlike the House version, it does not lock in gas tax increases.

    March 26, 2014

  • House passes bill aimed at saving Big Sandy Plant

    Backers of a bill to require the Kentucky Public Service Commission to “reconsider” its previous order approving Kentucky Power’s purchase of a West Virginia generator say all they are asking “is for them to take a second look and look at all the facts.”

    March 26, 2014 1 Story

  • Judge: Companies can’t use eminent domain for pipeline project

    Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd on Tuesday ruled that companies building a natural gas liquids pipeline across parts of Kentucky cannot invoke eminent domain to force private property owners to provide easements.

    March 26, 2014

  • Still no snow day solution from lawmakers

    Senate and House negotiators, working on a bill to give school districts flexibility in making up snow days, each accused the other of moving the goal posts – but it’s the local school districts who may be penalized.

    March 25, 2014

  • Senate sets budget with ‘wiggle room’

    It was no surprise the Republican-controlled Kentucky state Senate altered the $20 billion, two-year state budget approved by the Democratic-controlled House, but there may have been a few who were surprised by how little it was changed.

    March 25, 2014

Front page
Featured Ads
AP Video
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide