Based on the U.S. Justice Department's reversal on recreational marijuana, state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer plans to push for Kentucky to begin issuing licenses for hemp cultivation by the end of the year.
On Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told Colorado and Washington — two states that have legalized marijuana use — that as long as they have strict regulatory frameworks in place for producers and users, the federal government will not interfere.
Based on that, Comer said Friday that he thinks hemp, which has negligible drug levels, is covered.
"This is a major victory for Kentucky's farmers and for all Kentuckians," Comer said in a statement. "Two years ago, the Obama administration would not even discuss the legalization of industrial hemp. But through a bipartisan coalition of Kentucky leaders, we forced their hand. We refused to listen to the naysayers, passed a hemp bill by a landslide, and our state is now on the forefront of an exciting new industry. That's called leadership."
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In March, the House voted 88-4 and the Senate 35-1 to pass Senate Bill 50, which allows the Kentucky Department of Agriculture to license farmers to grow hemp if federal restrictions are eased.
An opinion issued by Agriculture Department attorney Luke Morgan found that the marijuana memorandum does just that.
"The DOJ memo removes any question that SB 50 and the changes to Kentucky's laws in this legislation may be immediately implemented," Morgan wrote. The memo and Holder's statements "clarify that the federal government does not and will not view Kentucky's industrial hemp as an illegal product."
Comer will ask the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission and chairman Brian Furnish on Sept. 12 to take steps toward issuing hemp-production licenses, with the goal of having a crop in the ground next year.
"That's his hope," said Comer's chief of staff, Holly VonLuerhte.
Hemp advocates said Friday that they are taking a cautious reading of the memo but have asked the Justice Department for clarification on hemp.
A response from the Justice Department was not immediately available.
"I would think, from our perspective, that this is only directed at Colorado and Washington and cannabis," said Tom Murphy, a Vote Hemp board member and its national outreach coordinator. "There is no mention of the word hemp in there, all the mention of state laws refer to Colorado and Washington, and there is nothing to say hemp is included."
Six other states — Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont and West Virginia — have authorized the licensing of farmers to grow hemp, but the crop has not been cultivated in decades.
The Kentucky Agriculture Department's legal memo indicates Kentucky can act now.
"An important distinction to be made is that the DOJ memo addresses actions involving marijuana, and industrial hemp as defined in Kentucky law, and the DEA memo, is not marijuana," Morgan wrote. "Thus, if the DOJ memo provides guidance to federal authorities in interacting with those states which have legalized the use of marijuana, it stands to reason that Kentucky is well within its rights to immediately implement its industrial hemp laws, and promulgate regulations which will guide the lawful production of industrial hemp."
Furnish said that the Justice Department's position gives Kentucky "a green light to move forward and start the regulation process," which could take a while.
He said the state hopes to move quickly but wants to make sure everything is done properly.
"I don't want to do anything that's going to break any law, get any farmer in trouble or put a black eye on hemp in Kentucky," Furnish said. "But I don't see how they could prevent us from growing hemp in Kentucky if they're going to let other states grow marijuana."