Hemp lobby waiting on Beshear to sign bill, ready for Washington

jpatton1@herald-leader.comMarch 27, 2013 

Supporters of growing hemp on Wednesday cheered the General Assembly's last-hour passage of a bill to license Kentucky farmers. And they made plans to take to Washington their case that industrial hemp should be legal.

After a speech in Lexington, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, said he's "very excited" about the hemp bill and Kentucky's chances for a waiver to grow it.

"Has the governor made any statement on signing it? I can't imagine that he wouldn't. It passed overwhelmingly in the House and the Senate," Paul told reporters. "As soon as it passes and is law, I'm going to send a letter to the president asking him to give Kentucky a waiver. We could be one of the first states to grow hemp. That would be great."

Paul said he would ask the governor to join him in requesting the waiver.

Beshear "is going to review the bill and talk with law enforcement before making any decision," Beshear spokeswoman Kerri Richardson said Wednesday.

Paul will lobby in Washington with U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, and Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.

Paul said he plans to keep pushing the federal legislation to legalize hemp, "but in the meantime, I'd like to get a waiver and let Kentucky immediately start doing it in the next year. ... If the president would encourage them, I think it could happen pretty quickly."

Comer said Wednesday that he, Yarmuth and Paul plan to meet with a representative of the White House and with USDA officials once Beshear signs the bill. He said he thinks the odds of success could be good with the regulatory framework that has been passed.

"I do foresee us getting a waiver to put a crop in by 2014," Comer said. "That's my goal: a crop by 2014."

Former Kentucky Treasurer Jonathan Miller will act as liaison to the White House for the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission, of which Comer and Miller are members. Comer is currently the chairman but will step down to vice chairman with the new legislation.

"I am happy to lend whatever aid I can to this worthy effort," Miller said. "I am so proud of everyone who worked to pass Senate Bill 50, including Commissioner Comer, Senator Hornback and Representative Rocky Adkins, who literally worked until the eleventh hour to strike a deal, even when the bill appeared to be dead. Now Kentucky can send a unified, bipartisan message to the federal authorities."

Yarmuth also was "pleased with the bill the General Assembly passed," said spokesman Stephen George. "He will support the state's efforts to get a federal waiver and in the meantime will continue working with Kentucky's federal delegation to enact legislation that would make industrial hemp legal."

Yarmuth is likely to be a key player in the federal discussions, which could begin as soon as Gov. Steve Beshear signs the bill.

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, also has thrown his support behind Kentucky's hemp efforts.

"I applaud Commissioner James Comer for his leadership on the issue and the Kentucky General Assembly for passing the legislation, which has the potential to provide an economic boost to Kentucky, create jobs and allow Kentucky farmers to harness the economic potential that industrial hemp can provide," McConnell said in a statement Wednesday. "I will continue to work with Senator Paul on a federal approach that would enable Kentucky farmers to cultivate and profit from industrial hemp in a way that does not compromise Kentucky law enforcement's marijuana eradication efforts or in any way promote illegal drug use."

Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, said that the amended version should strengthen Kentucky's chances of persuading federal lawmakers the state could address law enforcement concerns and still make a significant economic contribution.

"I am proud to have been a part of a bipartisan effort that could reap great rewards for Kentucky's agricultural industry and economy," Adkins said Wednesday. "By expanding and strengthening components of Senate Bill 50, the end result will also increase our chances of a competitive application to the DEA for consideration of a waiver. ... Now that Kentucky has acted, it's up to Congress and the Kentucky delegation to make a decision on whether the ban should be lifted."

Adkins worked with bill sponsor Hornback, R-Shelbyville, to craft the compromise deal that was passed.

In the late hours of the legislative session, there was some confusion about the roles that the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and the University of Kentucky will play in implementing hemp licensing. This had been a sticking point in the negotiations.

Comer said Tuesday night that the hemp commission, which will handle licensing, remains with the KDA; Adkins and other House leaders said UK.

The compromise actually appears to be a bit of both. The language attaches the beefed-up hemp commission to the UK Agricultural Experiment Station. The university will handle "research and development-related" activities, but everything else (testing for THC, processing of licenses, budgets) will be handled through the Agriculture Department, which will provide the administrative support for the hemp commission.

Adkins' amendment increases the authority of the hemp commission as well as its membership, which now may include representatives from several Kentucky universities. The Kentucky State Police will handle background checks of farmers who apply for hemp licenses.

Scott Smith, dean of the UK College of Agriculture and a member of the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission already, said he was happy with what the General Assembly worked out.

"We're partners in all this. We were very concerned about being put in a regulatory role or a licensing role, but I think they've resolved that issue," Smith said. He said UK is interested in hemp research.

"My attitude all along is this is a classic case where research is needed," Smith said. "Got to take the first steps.

So when could Kentucky begin planting hemp?

"By 2014, it's doable with prompt review by the DEA," Smith said.

Janet Patton: (859) 231-2364. Twitter: janetpattonhl

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