FRANKFORT — Legislators reached a last-hour deal Tuesday to pass a bill to license Kentucky farmers to grow hemp.
The deal between House Democrats and Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, will allow hemp licensing by the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission under the control of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
Who would do the licensing had been a big snag for House Democrats, who apparently buckled under public pressure.
Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said the bill will leave the hemp commission with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. The research functions will be performed by the University of Kentucky.
The House voted 88-4 and sent the bill back to the Senate where it passed 35-1.
The last-minute deal came after a day of negotiations between Hornback and Rep. Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, as well as other House Democratic leaders.
The bill appeared hung up on who would administer hemp-growing licenses to Kentucky farmers.
Despite widespread public support, the bill faced several hurdles, including initial opposition in the Senate and in the House Agriculture committee. But it eventually passed both handily.
Hornback negotiated until virtually the last minute of the session to get it to the floor of the House.
The bill would license Kentucky farmers to grow hemp if federal restrictions were lifted. Most of Kentucky's congressional delegation, except for Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, are sponsors of federal legislation to distinguish between hemp, which has very low levels of THC, and marijuana. Currently, the DEA doesn't recognize any difference; both crops are illegal.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, signed on as a sponsor of the federal hemp bill. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, U.S. Reps. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, and Thomas Massie, R-Vanceburg, said they would lobby the DEA either for a permit for Kentucky or for a waiver to let the state be a pilot project.
Comer said that would position the state to attract several hemp-based industries, with several businesses prepared to invest in hemp-related facilities in Kentucky if the state was successful.
In opposing the bill, House Speaker Greg Stumbo had cited concerns of Kentucky State Police and drug enforcement officers that legal hemp would be hard to distinguish from illegal marijuana.
Gov. Steve Beshear also has expressed similar concerns. It is unclear whether the governor might veto the bill.
Comer said that he will be calling Beshear Wednesday to urge him to sign the hemp bill.
He said he has not spoken to the governor about it "but I will be." If Beshear does sign it, Comer said he plans to join Kentucky delegation led by Yarmuth and Paul in Washington to push for a waiver.
Comer said he believes the state has a strong chance of getting it.
"We'll walk in there with a lot of credibility," Comer said.
Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl.