The Kentucky Senate voted 31-6 to pass legislation Thursday that would license farmers to grow industrial hemp, should the federal government legalize the crop.
The proposal advances to the House, where Speaker Greg Stumbo has suggested the issue needs more study to see if potential economic benefits outweigh the concerns of law enforcement officials.
The only Senator who did not vote on the bill was Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester. Afterward, Stivers declined to tell reporters why he did not vote, saying he was in a hurry to get home for Valentine's Day.
Supporters said hemp could bring new jobs and economic growth to the state.
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"We're just very happy and excited and very appreciative of the state Senate for their overwhelming support and we look forward to a good, open, fair debate in the House," said Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who has lobbied aggressively for Senate Bill 50.
Comer said he hopes the House Agriculture Committee will consider the measure when it meets on Wednesday.
"This is one of the major bills of this session," Comer said. "Hopefully they will take a sense of urgency and vote it out of committee. We have the votes in the committee and the votes to pass it off the full floor of the House."
Sen. Paul Hornback, sponsor of the legislation and chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, urged colleagues to support the bill so that Kentucky will be ready to act whenever federal officials decide to legalize hemp.
"Those who are first are often the winner. ... If you're not first, you're last," said Hornback, R-Shelbyville.
Comer pointed to a surprising development in Washington Thursday, where Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, signed on as a sponsor of legislation that would distinguish hemp from marijuana in the eyes of law enforcement.
"Passing the bill out the house would send a clear message that we're serious about this in Kentucky," Comer said.
Supportive Kentucky lawmakers hailed the move.
"Industrial hemp won't make us high but it might make us happy," said Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington.
Sen. R.J. Palmer, D-Winchester, cast his aye vote in honor of former Democratic state Sen. Joey Pendleton, who long championed industrial hemp.
Palmer pointed out that Senate Bill 50 does not legalize hemp. Instead, it sets up a system to regulate hemp production if federal legislation filed by U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Vanceburg, and McConnell passes or if the state's federal delegation is able to secure a waiver from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency to grow it.
Several of the six senators who opposed the legislation said they did so because of continuing concerns by law enforcement and skepticism about the economic potential. Kentucky State Police chief Rodney Brewer testified against the bill earlier this week, saying police might have difficulty distinguishing between hemp and marijuana.
Opposing senators said they could have supported a study or a smaller pilot project, hinting that they might back an amended bill from the House.
Comer said he opposes amending the legislation to reduce the scope or study it longer.
Some said erroneously that Canada subsidizes hemp; however, Canada does not subsidize the growing of hemp. It has used economic development money to help build hemp processing facilities.
Earlier in the day, Gov. Steve Beshear expressed his ambivalence about the hemp bill on that score.
"In theory, I think we can all be for another agricultural product that might be good for the farmers of this state," Beshear said. "Number one, we really don't know anything about whether there's going to be a market for it yet. I understand Canada's been doing this for about 10 or 12 years, the government subsidizes it, which I'm not sure I want to get into in Kentucky. And it's developed into about a $10 million crop. And that's it. So we may be yelling about a lot of things very loudly that really don't mean too much right now."
Beshear also noted that Kentucky has "a big drug problem" and he doesn't want to do anything that "will make that problem even worse."
Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, has said previously that he might support a study to see if the potential economic benefits of growing hemp could outweigh law enforcement concerns.
Those comments apparently struck a chord with some senators.
"If Kentucky is going to hang the future of agriculture out there on a crop that costs us money to have, that's not a very promising economic future," said Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard.
Smith said he "could have supported a pilot study with our universities, about 100 acres under study. We could have started a very progressive model."
Sen. Chris Girdler, R-Somerset, home of U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, who also opposes legalizing industrial hemp, said he believes that "growing a Chia Pet would have as much economic impact as growing hemp."
Hornback said hemp probably won't be a "cash cow" for most farmers, but noted that he had been contacted by two companies in the past week about wanting to bring hemp-related business to the state.