After a whirlwind trip this week through the marble halls of Washington, state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said Friday he is more hopeful than ever that Kentucky could plant hemp in 2014.
For three days, Comer met with leaders of key federal agencies, with Republican leaders in the House and Senate, and with White House officials.
"The quality of the meetings was what stands out," Comer said. "We had 20 minutes alone with (U.S. House Speaker) John Boehner to talk about hemp. We didn't talk about politics; we didn't talk about agriculture. We talked about hemp."
Turns out Boehner's daughter had researched the issue in college, and the speaker was already well versed.
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Comer said the Republican from Ohio was impressed that Kentucky — a red Southern state — had come out so strongly in favor of legalizing a crop that often suffers in voters' perceptions from its association with marijuana.
Boehner was open to legislation put forth by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, Comer said. A parallel bill has been filed by U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Vanceburg, with co-sponsorship by U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville.
Although Comer had hoped Kentucky would be able to get a waiver from the federal government to allow the state to be the first to reintroduce the crop to the U.S. market, he said he now thinks that is unlikely.
Instead, he said, Kentucky's delegation will push for hearings on the issue. Paul and Massie have requested hearings in their respective houses to make the case, as they did in Kentucky, that the crop has economic potential for agriculture and for energy. But in the Senate, the bill has been sent to the Judiciary committee, which is dealing with several heavyweight issues, including immigration.
Another legislative option discussed with Boehner was to include language in the upcoming federal farm bill.
"Problem is they may not pass a farm bill," Comer said. "They didn't pass one last year."
Comer, who was joined by former Kentucky state treasurer Jonathan Miller and state Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, also met with officials from the USDA, the Department of Energy, the EPA and the White House.
All seemed receptive, Comer said.
The main obstacle remains, however: No one from the Drug Enforcement Administration, which does not distinguish hemp from marijuana, would meet with them, Comer said.
Barring a congressional hearing, another way to get hemp legalized might be directly through President Barack Obama, who could redefine it by executive order.
Seven of the eight members of Kentucky's congressional delegation signed a letter to the DEA asking for clarification on hemp. The lone holdout was U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, with whom Comer was unable to meet in Washington. Rogers also opposed the bill that the Kentucky General Assembly passed in March to allow farmers to grow hemp if the federal restrictions are eased, because some law enforcement officers said it could hamper marijuana eradication efforts.
Comer said he is confident that the public, even in conservative states, can understand the distinction between a farm crop and a drug. He said he's eager to make the case everywhere he can.
While in Washington, he said, they were "barraged" by reporters on the topics. Comer gave interviews to the Huffington Post, Politico and Roll Call, and the Kentucky press corps in Washington.
"I feel like it's a issue that could catch fire on the national level like it did in Kentucky," he said.