FRANKFORT — Legislation to license Kentucky farmers to grow industrial hemp took a step forward Monday, with the state Senate agriculture committee voting unanimously to send it to the full chamber.
Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, was absent.
The bill had virtually unprecedented support from Kentucky's federal lawmakers: U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green; and U.S. Reps. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, and Thomas Massie, R-Vanceburg, all flew in to testify alongside Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer on behalf of Senate Bill 50.
Paul, sporting a shirt made of hemp that he said he bought in Canada, said, "Basically, we're exporting profit to Canada. ... I see no reason we wouldn't want to be a leader in this. Why not legalize something that could produce jobs and probably will?"
The others echoed that, touting the boon to the state that they see in hemp.
"The reason I am here today is because I am loath to give up on any potential economic opportunities that this commonwealth possesses for this state," Yarmuth said. "I am convinced industrialized hemp represents an enormous economic future for whomever is willing to take advantage of it. And we must be positioned in a way to take advantage of it whenever legalization on the federal level occurs."
Paul and Massie are pushing for federal changes to distinguish hemp from marijuana. They, along with Yarmuth, also plan to ask for a waiver from the Drug Enforcement Administration to allow Kentucky to plant a pilot project for hemp.
They cited Canada and other industrialized countries that have allowed hemp production and said there have been no difficulties with marijuana.
But Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer testified that allowing hemp could create difficulties for law enforcement trying to eradicate marijuana. He said his department spends $2.1 million a year on wiping out the crop, most of which is "ditch weed," or very weak marijuana.
Other speakers, including North Dakota state Rep. David Monson, former speaker of the house there, suggested that in tight budget times, the state could reap a double benefit: from the economic opportunities from hemp and from the botanical weakening of marijuana with hemp pollen.
Kentucky lawmakers asked whether the regulations built into the bill — such as licensing and registering GPS coordinates of all hemp fields — wouldn't help state police. Brewer said they would, but he remained skeptical of the overall prospect.
However, Brewer did say that if the potential economic benefits are borne out, he would be prepared to work with lawmakers to keep Kentucky's marijuana crop, which he estimated at $880 million last year, from infiltrating hemp.
Kentucky's bill, sponsored by Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, was altered slightly at the last minute Monday to address concerns raised by law enforcement that people caught with marijuana would try to claim the "hemp defense," that they had hemp instead of marijuana.
The revised language would make it illegal for anyone other than licensed hemp growers or their designated agents to transport hemp. They would have to carry a copy of the hemp license with them off the farm.
Sen. Dan Seum, R-Louisville, the Senate majority caucus chairman, said he would poll fellow Republicans this week about the bill, and it could come up for a vote before the full Senate this week.
Passage in the House is more doubtful. House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, has said he thinks more study is needed before Kentucky moves forward.
Stumbo said Monday that the hemp bill would get a "full and fair hearing," but he was skeptical of hemp's economic potential.
"I would have to be assured the viability and benefits to our state far outweigh the concerns of law enforcement," he said.
The House agriculture committee could take up a competing hemp bill Wednesday, but Rep. Tom McKee, D-Cynthiana, said he was not sure it would get a vote.
Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl.