This year has ushered into the state legislature a renewed conversation about the restoration of hemp as an agricultural crop and potential economic engine for Kentucky. This isn't a new discussion, but rather an old one with renewed support.
For nearly 30 years, lawyer and activist Gatewood Galbraith discussed, lobbied and even campaigned for hemp restoration. He wasn't alone. Former Gov. Louie Nunn created legislation that passed in 2001 not only making hemp legal in Kentucky but creating a plan for its reintroduction. At one point in the early 20th century, Kentucky was the leading producer of hemp in the United States.
Suddenly we see the city of Lexington, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and even U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell jumping on the bandwagon that Galbraith drove into the ground.
Hemp is a no-brainer. Agreed, there will be many details to work out, but the least of those details would be any correlation between hemp and marijuana. The qualities of hemp and marijuana are separate and distinct. The two plants, the growing method and product end use are easily distinguishable. In 2011, the University of Saskatchewan of Canada mapped the hemp genome, conclusively verifying hemp and marijuana are separate strains.
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During the early 20th century, hemp production was labor intensive, and there existed little understanding of the plant and its various beneficial qualities. Hemp was used almost exclusively to create rope and canvas, a relatively limited market and not necessarily a lucrative one for farmers. Technology has advanced hemp processing to a point where that is no longer the case.
Research has advanced to a point where we now know not only the industrial benefits and multitude of uses, but the nutritional benefits of hemp. During the past century, the hemp industry has developed a viable and lucrative market, established worldwide and ever growing.
Canada and China enjoy $100 million hemp industries while the U.S. Congress remains bogged down in political partisanship. Political fame seekers have historically plagued and in large part stifled U.S. hemp restoration. Kentucky needs to rise above this mentality. We are more than capable of having a difficult but mature conversation on the issue — politics aside.
If other countries are capable of creating policies adequate to distinguish between hemp and marijuana, surely the United States and Kentucky are capable of doing the same. Hemp is more an economic discussion than a political, legal or drug-policy one.
As we proceed in our effort to restore hemp, it is important we make note of the self-appointed pied pipers in support or opposition of the cause. This should neither diminish nor enhance the fact that hemp is potentially of great benefit to Kentucky's long-term economic viability. It will not prove to be an economic saving grace, but indisputably hemp would prove a good addition to the economic/manufacturing base. Hemp restoration is an opportunity for Kentucky to become a national leader in the development of a new industry.
I cannot help but point out the obvious: Gatewood was so criticized by the very people now standing up and making a name for themselves in support of his life's work — now that hemp has become nationally popular and political expedient. Maybe we had better heed all of Gatewood's lessons and take a second look at marijuana policy, too.