'Timing is right' for hemp, state senator says

Bill would promote plant's use for fuel and fiber

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comOctober 11, 2009 

Within the next three weeks, State Sen. Joey Pendleton plans to take a group of Kentucky farmers to study the industrial hemp trade in Canada where the crop has been grown legally for the past 10 years.

Pendleton, D-Hopkinsville, has introduced a bill for 2010, renewing a push to legalize industrial hemp in Kentucky as a cash crop and as a source for alternative fuels.

"The timing is right," Pendleton said. "It would give farmers another crop to raise." Production of hemp is already legal for research purposes in Kentucky but is untried due to federal barriers.

Pendleton's bill comes at a time when federal legislation decriminalizing hemp for industrial use has been introduced in Congress and proponents are encouraged by stances taken by the Obama Administration.

In Versailles, where the remnants of an old hemp processing plant still stand on property that Margaret McCauley's family owns, McCauley said she hopes Pendleton is successful.

"I think industrial hemp would do a lot for the farming community," said McCauley, who has preserved artifacts from decades ago when hemp was grown legally in Kentucky.

McCauley said she hopes lawmakers won't confuse industrial hemp with its controversial cousin, marijuana.

Although industrial hemp comes from the same plant species as marijuana, industrial hemp does not have enough THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana, to produce the "high" marijuana users feel, proponents say. Hemp and marijuana look alike. But hemp is grown for fiber found in the stalk while marijuana is grown for leaves and flower buds.

Industrial hemp is used in alternative automobile fuels and in such products as paper, cloths, cosmetics, and carpet.

Pendleton's bill would require that individuals wanting to grow or process industrial hemp be licensed by the state Department of Agriculture. The legislation would require criminal history checks of growers and would require sheriffs to monitor and randomly test industrial hemp fields.

The bill calls for an assessment fee of $5 per acre for every acre of industrial hemp grown, with a minimum fee of $150, to be divided equally between the state and the appropriate sheriff's department.

Phillip Garnett, a Christian County farmer, said he plans to go to Canada with Pendleton to investigate industrial hemp farming as a potential "new source of income and energy." Pendleton said he'd pay for his portion of the trip.

Garnett who raises tobacco, corn, wheat, and soybeans, said he wants to know more about the economics before he would consider raising industrial hemp. But he said "I'm always looking for alternative crops, and it sounds like it makes sense."

Because of current federal law, all hemp included in products sold in the United States must be imported.

Federal law includes industrial hemp in the definition of marijuana, and prohibits American farmers from growing hemp.

But the Industrial Hemp Farming Act, introduced in Congress in April by Reps. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Ron Paul, R-Texas, would require the federal government to respect state laws allowing hemp production.

Pendleton says he sees new hope that federal barriers will be lessened, pointing to positions taken by the Obama administration.

In February, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the federal government was going to yield medical marijuana jurisdiction to states. As a state lawmaker in Illinois, Barack Obama voted for a resolution urging Congress to allow the production of industrial hemp.

In addition to production of hemp, research on hemp has been affected. A federal permit is required for industrial hemp research, Laura E. Sweeney, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Justice, said Friday.

The University of Kentucky would probably grow industrial hemp for research if allowed in the future, said Scott Smith, dean of the UK College of Agriculture.

When UK applied for a federal permit to grow a research plot of industrial hemp after Kentucky passed the 2001 law allowing analysis, the federal government denied permission, Smith said.

Kentucky is one of eight states that allows hemp research or production.

The federal government has given North Dakota State University permission to grow industrial hemp for research purposes under strict security measures, but money has been an issue.

In Kentucky, a similar bill filed in the 2009 General Assembly by Pendleton was not given a hearing.

But for 2010, state State Sen. David P. Givens, R-Greensburg, the chair of the Senate Agricultural Committee, said he is interested in seeing new economic studies.

The most prominent studies on the profitability of industrialized hemp in Kentucky are a decade old. They reached conflicting conclusions.

A study released in 1998 included work by researchers at UK's Center for Business and Economic Research. It showed that had hemp production been legalized at that time, Kentucky would have benefitted, with farmers making profits of between $220 and $605 an acre.

The returns would have fallen somewhere between tobacco and other crops that were already grown in Kentucky, the research showed.

However, a study released in 1997 by the UK College of Agriculture did not find much of a market for Kentucky hemp.

Smith, who served on an industrial hemp study commission convened by then Gov. Brereton Jones in the 1990s, remains skeptical of the potential profits from hemp.

Givens said he is also interested in hearing from law enforcement officials, who have expressed misgivings in the past.

Christian County Sheriff Livy Leavell Jr. said additional revenue for sheriff's departments "would be a plus" and that he hoped members of the Kentucky Sheriff's Association would take a close look at the legislation.

Reach Valarie Honeycutt Spears at (859) 231-3409 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3409

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