FRANKFORT — Growing industrial hemp remains illegal in Kentucky despite recent state legislation and a U.S. Department of Justice memo dealing with marijuana prosecutions, Attorney General Jack Conway said Wednesday.
Conway, in a six-page advisory letter to State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer, said any person or entity that grows hemp in the state "will expose themselves to potential criminal liability and the possible seizure of property by federal or state law enforcement agencies."
The only way to legally grow the crop, Conway said, is a change in federal law or through a federal waiver. He said he personally supports the growing of hemp if those conditions are met.
Conway's legal analysis drew support from Gov. Steve Beshear but vitriol from the office of state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.
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Comer's chief of staff, Holly Harris VonLuehtre, said Conway has "thrown a roadblock to this industry."
"It's just pure government overreach," she said. "It makes no sense from a legal and political standpoint."
Both Conway, a Democrat, and Comer, a Republican, have been mentioned as possible candidates for governor in 2015.
VonLuehtre also said Conway and Comer were together on Tuesday at a Commerce Lexington program, "and Conway never mentioned this to the state's top agricultural official." She said it was her understanding that state police officials had advance knowledge of what Conway was going to say about industrial hemp.
State police did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment.
Conway said politics had nothing to do with his advisory opinion. He said the purpose of his letter was not to comment on the policy of growing hemp in Kentucky but to provide an overview of current federal and state laws that deal with hemp.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg who was attorney general from 2003 to 2007, said Conway's decision is "legally correct."
He then called for more debate about legalizing marijuana for medical purposes.
"I am open and leaning toward supporting the use of medical marijuana as I read more and more research," Stumbo said.
Earlier this year, the Kentucky General Assembly approved legislation pushed by Comer that created a licensing system for hemp growers if the federal government decriminalizes the plant. It drew support from U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, and U.S. Reps. Thomas Massie, R-Vanceburg, and John Yarmuth, D-Louisville.
Hemp once was a major crop in Kentucky but it has not been produced in the state since the federal government labeled it a controlled substance decades ago.
In late August, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a memo indicating that the federal Drug Enforcement Administration will not act against states that have passed laws allowing marijuana use, as long as it is well-regulated.
Following the federal memo, the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission asked the state Department of Agriculture to begin drafting regulations to license hemp farmers, with an eye for planting it in April.
VonLuehtre said the state agriculture department will seek clarification from Conway on whether he will prosecute farmers who grow industrial hemp.
During a telephone conference with reporters, Conway would not say if he would ever call a grand jury to prosecute anyone who tried to grow the crop.
State Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelby County, sponsored this year's bill that allowed for the planting of industrial hemp.
Hornback said Wednesday that Conway's decision seemed to make things murkier, not clearer.
He noted that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said that the federal government will overlook the federal laws that prohibit the growing of marijuana in states where it is now legal.
"It doesn't seem logical that the federal government would come after hemp growers in states where it is now legal," Hornback said. "At some point in time you have to be consistent. This does not show any consistency."
Beshear, however, said "it's clear that a formal change in the federal law is needed before our farm families can reasonably consider growing this crop."
Conway said he issued the letter because police, state lawmakers and citizens have voiced concerns with him about the actions of the hemp commission. He noted that state law allows the attorney general to issue a legal advisory opinion when the issue is of strong public interest.