FRANKFORT — The Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission voted Thursday to ask the state Department of Agriculture to begin drafting regulations to license farmers, with an eye to planting hemp in April.
"Things are moving forward at a rapid pace," Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said afterward. "I think this is an exciting first step. History will decide whether this was defining moment in Kentucky agriculture or not."
The commission is moving forward on licensing in the wake of a memo from the U.S. Justice Department, issued at the end of August, indicating that the federal Drug Enforcement Administration will not act against states that have passed laws allowing marijuana use, as long as it is well regulated.
No one on the hemp commission objected to efforts to move forward on hemp licensing, but a Kentucky State Police representative said afterward that he didn't vote because the state police are waiting for clarification from state Attorney General Jack Conway's office on the issue.
State police Maj. Anthony Terry said the state police's position is that "the memo changes nothing" because it doesn't alter the law.
Terry said the state police requested an advisory opinion from Conway on how the federal action affects Kentucky's potential hemp crop.
The Justice Department memo did not mention hemp, but Agriculture Department attorney Luke Morgan said his reading of the language is that hemp, because of the low levels of the drug THC, is legal as long as states have a strong regulatory framework.
Morgan recommended that the commission communicate its intentions to the Justice Department to allow federal authorities ample time to comment.
At the behest of the commission, Comer and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, will send a letter notifying the Justice Department of the state's plans to grow hemp and ask them formally to weigh in with objections.
"We plan to proceed forward, based on their recent ruling, unless they tell us otherwise," Comer said. "Hopefully we'll hear something back from the DOJ if they have opposition to it."
Comer's chief of staff, Holly VonLuehrte, said that at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday in Washington on the change in federal marijuana policy, a Justice Department official indicated that farmers would not be prosecuted for growing hemp. That would align with Kentucky law, under which industrial hemp is legal and distinct from marijuana, VonLuehrte said.
Comer said he was surprised to hear from the state police that the attorney general will be issuing an opinion.
"We had no idea they were even contemplating any type of ruling until state police mentioned it today," Comer said.
Morgan said, "I think what Commissioner Comer and the hemp commission are putting in place is exactly what needs to be done. So long as it's regulated, ... they're going to be OK with it."
Meanwhile, Comer said his office has received calls "almost daily" from companies in and out of Kentucky interested in processing hemp.
He said that Kentucky poultry producers and the horse industry have expressed interest in hemp as a source of bedding. A Kentucky lumber company that makes pelletized wood for stoves is interested in incorporating hemp.
The crop, he said, "will be a tool in the toolbox. It's not going to be the salvation or replace tobacco."
The hemp commission discussed a recently released economic impact study by University of Kentucky economists that found limited potential for hemp because it won't replace corn or other high-return crops.
"The farmers that need an alternative crop the most are located east of Frankfort. I think it's going to be a viable option for them," Comer said.
Also Thursday, the commission recognized that it has potential constitutional conflicts over regulatory issues and asked Morgan to work on clean-up legislation to take to the General Assembly next year. That language probably will clarify that the hemp commission's role is advisory only because legislators can't function in an administrative or a judicial capacity.
Lawmakers placed on the hemp commission by Senate Bill 50, which was passed earlier this year, abstained from the votes.
Comer said he isn't worried about taking the hemp bill back through the legislative process.
"There's overwhelming public support for what we're trying to do, and what we're trying to do is help farmers and create manufacturing jobs in rural communities," Comer said. "There is bipartisan support for that. All the polls show people understand the difference between industrial hemp and its evil cousin."
Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl.