Democrat's hemp bill amendment stirs Republicans' ire

jpatton1@herald-leader.comFebruary 26, 2013 

Industrial hemp in Manitoba, Canada. The yellow flowered plants are volunteer canola ( meaning the field was sown to canola the previous year and these are plants that grew from seed that fell on the ground at harvest.) Laura Rance/Manitoba Co-operator

The chairman of the state House Agriculture Committee plans to ask for major changes to a hemp bill, including calling for hemp field trials by the University of Kentucky rather than leaving it up to farmers.

Rep. Tom McKee, D-Cynthiana, said Tuesday that he plans to call for a committee substitute Wednesday morning that he said would be "more aggressive than the bill itself."

Advocates for the existing legislation questioned that assertion; neither bill sponsor Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, nor Agriculture Commissioner James Comer had seen the proposed changes before 5 p.m. Tuesday.

"I think it's an attempt to stall the bill," Hornback said of McKee's proposed changes.

Hornback said he met with McKee and was promised a look at the bill before the end of the day but called what he's heard "a travesty" that would kill the opportunity to create jobs in Kentucky.

Animosity over the late substitution erupted Tuesday on the House floor.

House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, criticized McKee on the floor, accusing him of playing "gotcha politics" because Comer is a Republican. Hoover said that Senate Bill 50 received bipartisan support, passing the Senate 31-6, "and we're not even going to give it a fair hearing?"

Hoover called on McKee to have an up-or-down vote on the existing bill.

In response, McKee said the bill was being drafted and wasn't ready. He said he would call Comer as soon as it was available to discuss specifics.

"We feel like the sub moves the issue forward, that the commissioner can embrace it," McKee said. "He'll have a copy."

Earlier in the day, Comer's chief of staff, Holly VonLuehrte, said McKee also had not shared his changes with the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission. McKee sits on the hemp commission, which helped craft the language that the Senate passed earlier this month.

"Why play secrets and games with this? Why spring it on everybody at the last minute? Are we not going to get to see the committee sub until the meeting?" VonLuehrte asked. "It is incredibly disrespectful to not consult the body that's been working on this language for at least a year."

Hornback's Senate Bill 50 would set up a licensing framework for Kentucky farmers to grow hemp if federal restrictions are eased or if the Drug Enforcement Administration allows a waiver for the state to grow it.

McKee said his language probably would direct UK to pursue a DEA permit to begin studying the crop, which cannot be grown legally in the United States without a federal license.

"We'd like to see the UK experiment station get some in the ground this year," McKee said. "We're looking for an aggressive study, including some site visits to Canada. ... We very much support the industrial-hemp effort."

UK College of Agriculture Dean Scott Smith, who also is on the hemp commission, prepared a DEA permit a decade ago but never submitted it because the cost was expected to be prohibitively high and no funding was appropriated.

It is unclear how successful UK's application might be, how long it could take, or how much such an effort and research might cost. McKee said he is looking for a way to pay for it.

Smith issued this statement about McKee's proposal: "There are many unanswered questions about the cultivation of hemp in Kentucky, including suitability of various soil conditions and growth potential on various sites. If current legal and cost restrictions were alleviated, research to address those questions would clearly be within the mandated mission of the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station at the UK College of Agriculture. We would welcome the opportunity to develop much-needed, evidence-based information for growers and processors."

McKee said he thought the new language probably would receive the votes to pass the House committee Wednesday, and he is optimistic that it would have support on the House floor. Prospects for the hemp bill have been uncertain in the House, in part because of the objections of the Kentucky State Police, who have said that hemp cultivation might complicate marijuana eradication efforts.

Echoing House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, McKee said licensing language in Hornback's bill is probably unnecessary because if federal laws change to distinguish hemp from marijuana, "there probably would be a federal licensing program."

On Friday, Stumbo's office issued a statement saying, "There is no need for additional state bureaucracy involving permits issued by a state Hemp Czar."

McKee said his new language is not an effort to stall the hemp bill that Comer, a Republican, and Hornback have lobbied for.

"Absolutely not," McKee said. "I think there's some things we can do while we wait for (federal) permits. Whether they come this year or not ... I think they're going to come sometime. I think our bill's going to put us in position to take advantage of whatever comes."

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl.

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