In a shift toward embracing a potential new agricultural industry, Gov. Steve Beshear has written to President Barack Obama asking for help with hemp.
"While experience in Canada tells us that the economic opportunities in the hemp industry are still largely unknown, we want to explore any and all opportunities that have the possible potential for job creation and enhancing rural economies in areas of our state," Beshear wrote in a June 7 letter to the president.
In a nod to concerns of law enforcement, Beshear asked that the U.S. Attorney General, the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture "work with the Drug Enforcement Administration to identify economic opportunities in the hemp industry that do not negatively impact our drug eradication efforts."
During the 2013 session, the Kentucky General Assembly passed a bill to allow farmers to grow hemp if federal regulations are changed to allow it. At the time, Beshear said he shared the concerns of Kentucky State Police that legal hemp would be hard to distinguish from illegal marijuana.
Beshear allowed Senate Bill 50, which will set up a licensing framework, to become law but did not sign it.
The governor, in his letter to Obama, indicated he now wants to find a way to work around those legal issues.
"The governor hasn't changed his position at all," spokeswoman Kerri Richardson said. "The letter merely indicates his desire that we explore any opportunity for growing industrial hemp, if law enforcement concerns can be satisfied."
State Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who championed the issue, hailed Beshear's involvement.
"I welcome the governor's partnership in this effort and for bringing this important issue to the president's attention," Comer said in a statement. "We have to start talking very seriously about job creation in this state, and I think we are going to have to look for new, creative ways to help our farmers and agriculture community. And if we are going to move Kentucky forward, Republicans and Democrats will have to work together."
Last month, Comer and former state Treasurer Jonathan Miller, a Democrat, met with lawmakers and administration officials in Washington to urge them to distinguish hemp from marijuana.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, tried unsuccessfully to insert pro-hemp language into the federal Farm Bill, which is coming up for a vote in the Senate.
Paul and McConnell, along with most members of Kentucky's congressional delegation, also have sponsored a separate bill to make hemp cultivation legal again.
The senators issued a joint statement Thursday: "Although we're disappointed in the lack of consideration of our industrial hemp amendment, it is only the beginning of our legislative efforts. We are committed to continuing to look at all options to win approval of this important legislation for job creation in Kentucky."
The Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission meets at 1 p.m. Thursday in Frankfort at Comer's office to elect a new chair and discuss developments in Washington.