Democrats abruptly halt debate of hemp bill

jpatton1@herald-leader.comFebruary 27, 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

FRANKFORT — Democrats abruptly halted debate Wednesday on a bill that would regulate hemp farming in Kentucky if the federal government legalizes the crop.

The House Agriculture and Small Business Committee heard two hours of discussion about Senate Bill 50 Wednesday morning before committee Chairman Tom McKee, D-Cynthiana, declined to allow a vote on the bill and told members the meeting would continue at 4:30 p.m.

McKee later reconvened the committee briefly on the House floor for the sole purpose of adjourning the morning meeting.

"There are a lot of feelings. It's best to just back away for today and look at this sometime in the future," McKee said. "I think a lot of people want to think about where they are."

McKee said members needed more time to digest what they heard. He couldn't say when the committee might take up the bill again, if at all.

McKee had hoped to approve a substitute version of the bill that would replace language about licensing hemp farmers with language directing the University of Kentucky to conduct field trials of the crop.

McKee's proposal apparently did not have the necessary 15 votes to revise Sen. Paul Hornback's bill, which passed the Senate earlier this month 31-6.

Rep. Steven Rudy, R-West Paducah, said he was frustrated by the adjournment. Rudy, along with Rep. Jim DeCesare, R-Rockfield, had tried to force a vote on Senate Bill 50 at the hearing Wednesday morning.

McKee refused to allow the vote, instead saying that members would come back in the afternoon to vote on the committee substitute.

"I don't think they had the votes to pass the committee substitute," Rudy said.

Hornback said he was disappointed that no vote happened Wednesday.

"I was a little surprised that they were not even willing to talk about the bill anymore," Hornback said. "The House is standing in the way of this jobs bill. ... If that's what they choose to do, then the public needs to be made aware that the House is standing in the way of attracting new revenue to this state."

The day opened with Hornback, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, and Nutiva founder John Roulac testifying for the hemp bill.

Roulac told lawmakers his company, which sells hemp food products made from imported seed, has been growing 55 percent annually for the last decade.

"Hemp's not going to change the whole economy but it is an up-and-coming crop," Roulac said. "It's not going to create 10,000 jobs in Kentucky, but there's a lot of opportunity here. Kentucky has a great history with hemp."

Kentucky State Police continued to voice their objections to SB 50, saying they believe legal hemp would complicate marijuana eradication efforts.

State police said they would prefer a study, such as McKee proposed, rather than preparing to license farmers, even though nothing could be grown without federal approval.

Given the federal government's block on hemp farming, several lawmakers said they were puzzled about the objections to Hornback's plan.

Rep. Jonathan Shell, R-Lancaster, said he couldn't understand what all the law enforcement "contentiousness" was about.

"It baffles me that we're having this discussion on the pros and cons of legalizing hemp when this bill doesn't do that," Shell said. "I can't see that we're legalizing this crop with this bill."

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

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