FRANKFORT — Kentucky farmers could be on the forefront of agriculture again with an age-old crop: hemp.
With the support of Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, Kentucky legislators filed a bill Thursday to put Comer at the head of the long-dormant Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission and renew a push to bring the crop back.
Hemp, otherwise known as Cannabis sativa, is one of the world's oldest crop plants, but it has been outlawed for decades because of its association with marijuana, even though hemp has almost none of the chemical that gives users a high.
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, has filed legislation to lift current federal restrictions that keep farmers from sowing the seeds of the hemp revolution.
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Comer said that if House Bill 286 is approved by the General Assembly, he will petition federal authorities for a permit for Kentucky to grow hemp. The state Department of Agriculture would regulate hemp permits, at least in the beginning, he said.
"It's symbolic," Comer said. "But this will send a message to Washington that we're serious about this in Kentucky."
Currently, only Hawaii has a permit, but no hemp is being grown there, said state Sen. Joey Pendleton, D-Hopkinsville.
Pendleton, who has long pushed for legalizing industrial hemp, joined Reps. Richard Henderson, D-Jeffersonville; Keith Hall, D-Phelps; and Ryan Quarles, R-Georgetown, in announcing the legislation Thursday.
Several years ago, the University of Kentucky sought a permit, but the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency wouldn't issue one, Pendleton said. Now, he said, Washington might be more ready to listen.
"The time to act is now," he said.
Comer said he has had positive signals from several Kentucky lawmakers in Washington and has seen no backlash from Kentuckians or law enforcement for his support for hemp.
Pendleton and Phelps said they think farmers and others would line up to apply for state permits if the bill is approved. And they see a big future for hemp products, including ethanol production, fiber, textiles, food, cosmetics and car parts.
Studies have estimated that growing hemp could have a significant economic impact, particularly if processing centers also are built in the state.
"We could talk about the textile mills and the jobs that would be created. We could talk about the paper mills and the jobs that would be created," Henderson said. "We don't have any agenda other than we want to diversify our agricultural economy and create jobs."
Phelps said hemp could be a "gold mine." He said it would be perfect for mountaintop-removal mine reclamation projects, where it could be harvested for fiber or ethanol and would help repair environmental damage.
Comer said hemp could help replace the income lost in Eastern Kentucky as tobacco production moved west. "There's a void in many family farms," he said. "I believe that industrial hemp is a viable option for family farmers in Kentucky."
Craig Lee of the Green Coal Coalition has lobbied for hemp legalization since the early 1990s. He said he thinks the tide is finally turning.
"What's different now is the economy's in the tank," Lee said. Hemp provides the perfect opportunity for farmers, for job creation and for carbon-neutral energy creation all in one package, he said. "You can't truly be green without hemp."
Ironically, the recent death of Kentucky political figure Gatewood Galbraith, who campaigned for the legalization of marijuana and hemp, has given new life to the issue.
"I think it raised awareness of issues that were close to his heart," said Jonathan Miller, the former secretary of state who recently endorsed legalizing marijuana. Miller said he was a late convert to the cause but that Galbraith helped convince him.
"I realized Gatewood was right," Miller said. "If his death has helped get the debate started again, I'm sure he's smiling down on this from above."