Herald-Leader Editorial

Red herrings in debate over hemp

Ky. big pot grower despite hemp ban

February 13, 2013 

House Speaker Greg Stumbo is vowing to give law enforcement's concerns great credence in the hemp debate. He should also consider the lessons of the past 50 years.

Since Congress outlawed the production of industrial hemp, the use of marijuana has skyrocketed.

Cannabis sativa has become such an accepted and widespread part of American culture that 18 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical uses.

Last November, voters in Washington and Colorado legalized the recreational use of marijuana. And many states and municipalities have moved toward decriminalizing marijuana use — all while industrial hemp has been outlawed.

The ban on hemp clearly has failed to discourage the spread of marijuana. In fact, marijuana enjoys much greater popularity and acceptance today than it did when Kentucky farms grew lush crops of Cannabis sativa for industrial use.

Law-enforcement officials, notably Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer, have raised specific concerns that growers of illegal marijuana would use legal hemp fields as camouflage if the crop is reinstated.

Pot growers already have made the Appalachian region of Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia second only to California in domestic marijuana production, according to drug control agents.

Why would pot growers, who already know how to hide their crops, try to conceal illegal marijuana within a crop that has been licensed by the government and would be subject to inspection?

They wouldn't, which is why in 25 years of legalized hemp in Canada, inspectors have never found marijuana hiding amongst the hemp.

Stumbo's skepticism about the economics is reasonable. Hemp won't be the single salvation of rural Kentucky, or a replacement for tobacco, which was an economic mainstay because of the now-defunct federal price-support program.

But hemp's revival as a cash crop could create a niche for some growers, processors and manufacturers, a market that would grow as uses for this versatile plant expand.

Senate Bill 50, which unanimously cleared a Senate committee Monday, would enable Kentucky to quickly license hemp growers as soon as the feds allow it. Kentucky, for once, would be poised to take utmost advantage of an opportunity.

Given the weakness of the arguments against and the groundswell of bipartisan support for the crop, Stumbo's opposition would likely be viewed as political: a Democrat's desire to deny Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer a victory.

Stumbo and his House Democrats should think hard about whether that's the image they want for themselves.

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