Hemp bill clears House committee, but its future is uncertain

jpatton1@herald-leader.comMarch 6, 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 — A week after a first attempt, a hemp bill made it out of the Kentucky House Agriculture Committee with a nearly unanimous vote. But the bill still could die if House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, blocks a vote on the House floor.

Committee chairman Tom McKee, D-Cynthiana, said he hoped that the bill would move forward for the sake of farmers and for the jobs that he said hemp could bring to Kentucky.

McKee and state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who is pushing for the bill, both said they think the bill could pass easily in the House if a vote is allowed. The Senate passed the bill 31-6 this month.

Only one committee member, Rep. Tommy Turner, R-Somerset, voted against Senate Bill 50. Somerset also is the home of U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, who opposes legalizing hemp.

Turner said he voted against it because he still has concerns about how hemp might affect marijuana eradication. Kentucky State Police and narcotics officers have said they can't tell hemp and marijuana apart.

Senate Bill 50, sponsored by Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, would set up a licensing framework for Kentucky farmers to grow hemp if federal restrictions are eased. Kentucky's U.S. congressional delegation is lobbying for a waiver for the state and for a federal bill to distinguish marijuana and hemp, which has very low levels of the drug THC.

Comer has said that if the bill dies, Kentucky farmers could miss a big economic opportunity.

"I'm very pleased with what the House Agriculture Committee did and looking forward to getting a fair vote on the House floor within the next couple of days," Comer said. He hasn't been assured that he will get one, however.

On Wednesday afternoon, Stumbo cast doubt on the hemp bill. He said that since it allows a fee to be charged, it might qualify as a revenue-generating bill, which he said would have to start in the House rather than the Senate. Comer and Hornback, the bill sponsor, deny that it is a revenue bill.

"It's something different every day not to support the bill, when it's clear an overwhelming majority of the people want it," Comer said. "The taxpayers and the farmers are the losers."

Stumbo criticized Comer's handling of the issue, saying the agriculture commissioner is trying to "bully his way through."

Comer replied: "We've been told we're hurting lawmakers' feelings and that our passion is too much. Greg and his buddies need to get out of Frankfort more, because they would realize how embarrassing their statements are."

"I'm the sponsor of the bill," Hornback said. "In trying to get some things done, a lot of times you have to push. He calls it bullying; that's part of the process. For those that can't take that, maybe that's something you need to consider later on. You're going to be pushed. You're going to be bullied. Your coat's going to be pulled on."

Asked whether he is blocking the bill to deny a political accomplishment to Comer, a potential Republican gubernatorial candidate, Stumbo said: "The accomplishment for Comer would have been to document all the things he's been saying. If I were he, I would want to back up a little bit and get my facts in order. The law is clear, and I think the attorney general will agree that if the federal ban is lifted, Kentucky automatically is in the system and can begin growing industrial hemp."

Stumbo said the bill needs more study, but he wouldn't say whether it would be reassigned to another committee.

"I don't know where it will go. ... I doubt to the House floor. It's got a lot of problems," Stumbo said.

Stumbo said Monday that he isn't for the bill. Late last week, he requested an opinion from Attorney General Jack Conway on whether the hemp legislation is needed, because state statutes require Kentucky to mirror federal law.

"It is my contention that Kentucky is already poised to adopt the federal hemp-growing rules as soon as they come into existence and that Kentucky has no need for additional state bureaucracy involving permits issued by a state hemp czar," Stumbo wrote.

In response, Comer wrote to Conway to say that state law also requires the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission, which Comer leads, to recommend legislation toward the legal growing of hemp. Comer told Conway that the commission did that by recommending SB 50.

Hemp commission member Jonathan Miller, the former Kentucky treasurer and a Democrat, also has written Conway and planned to meet with him Wednesday to discuss why the hemp commission recommended the language in SB 50.

Miller said that if President Barack Obama's administration removes the restriction on growing hemp or issues a waiver, Kentucky might not be considered eligible without the licensing framework. Miller also said that if the federal bill sponsored by U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, and Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, and others in Kentucky's Washington delegation passes, federal rules might not address the concerns brought up by Kentucky State Police.

Measures to address those concerns, such as requiring the GPS coordinates of all hemp fields, have been incorporated into SB 50, Miller said, but they might not be part of a "one-size-fits-all federal regulatory scheme."

In a statement Wednesday, McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer wrote in an email that McConnell is "closely following what is happening in Kentucky with the hemp bill."

Paul issued a statement via email Wednesday: "This bipartisan legislation is a positive and important step forward in reintroducing industrial hemp and creating jobs in Kentucky. I call on House leaders to bring it to the floor for a vote."

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

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