Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer brought his pro-hemp message to the Lexington Forum on Thursday.
Since taking office in 2011, Comer has held town meetings in all 120 Kentucky counties, inviting local legislators to attend, to promote industrial hemp. In the early 19th century, Kentucky was the nation's leading hemp producer.
Comer is backing a bill in the General Assembly that would permit industrial hemp to again be cultivated.
Hemp would produce income for farmers and create manufacturing jobs for products using hemp, he said.
Farmers growing hemp would have to be licensed by the state and their fields inspected regularly, Comer said.
The Department of Agriculture, the state's largest regulatory agency, would oversee cultivation and sales of the crop.
Hemp is a sustainable, annual crop that "is easy and cheap to grow," he said. "It grows well in this climate and requires very little fertilizer or insecticides." The plant grows best in marginal soils found in many Central and Eastern Kentucky counties.
For people, including law enforcement officers, who are concerned that marijuana might be grown in hemp fields and the hemp and marijuana plants confused, Comer said the two look completely different.
Marijuana is a short, bushy plant with lots of leaves; industrial hemp is tall, with a thick stalk and few leaves.
When grown near each other, hemp and marijuana cross-pollinate, and the hemp destroys buds on the marijuana plants, he said. "Industrial hemp is an enemy of marijuana," Comer said. "Law enforcement should be for industrial hemp."
The long-dormant Industrial Hemp Commission, revived under Comer, has contracted with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture to conduct an economic-impact study.
For the crop to be grown successfully, there has to be a market for the fibers, Comer said. "Many products we make from plastic, like car dashboards, armrests, carpet and fabrics, are made from hemp in other countries. Hemp is also used to make paper."
Comer said one major benefit of growing hemp would be the manufacturing jobs created to produce items using hemp fibers, seed and oil.
"The United States is the only industrial country in the world that doesn't allow industrial hemp to be grown, yet many products Americans buy have hemp as an ingredient," he said. Hemp is legally grown in Canada and China, and throughout Europe.
If the General Assembly approves growing industrial hemp, the federal government would have to lift restrictions before it could be grown. "I want us to be ready when the federal government gives the go-ahead. I'm convinced they're going to do that," Comer said.