FRANKFORT — The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce joined a growing chorus of high-profile supporters on Friday who want to let Kentucky farmers grow industrial hemp, but the effort continues to face an uphill battle.
Bills have been filed in the House and Senate that would license farmers to grow the plant — a close cousin to marijuana — if the federal government lifts its ban on the crop. Such proposals have failed to gain traction with lawmakers in previous years, but sponsors of the two bills said they believe the measure has a better chance this year.
The board of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce voted Friday to support the proposal and Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer has spent much of the past year aggressively lobbying state and federal leaders to lift the ban on hemp as a way to stimulate rural Kentucky economies.
Half of Kentucky's congressional delegation — Republican U.S. Reps. Thomas Massie and Andy Barr, Democratic U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth and Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul — have also supported efforts to legalize growing hemp.
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Still, skeptics remain.
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said Friday that many Democratic and Republican senators remain uneasy with legalizing industrial hemp. Stivers said he did not know if the measure would pass the Republican-controlled Senate.
"We know that some members are quite supportive of it," Stivers said. "Some members are still trying to, I guess, digest the issue and hear from respective individuals that are involved."
In the House, Agriculture and Small Business Committee Chairman Tom McKee said he takes seriously the concerns some law enforcement officials have expressed about the proposal.
"I have some reservations because of the law enforcement concerns," said McKee, D-Cynthiana. "But we certainly don't want to close any doors on a viable agriculture crop for our farmers, but I do think there are a lot of concerns."
Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer has said it would be difficult for police in helicopters to distinguish hemp from marijuana. The two plants are from the same species, cannabis sativa, but are genetically distinct. Hemp has a negligible amount of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.
Comer said the majority of law enforcement officials he has talked to support the legalization of hemp.
"Most of them say they can tell the difference (between hemp and marijuana)," he said. "But if the state police have objections and there are things that we can do to ease those objections then we're willing to look at it."
Comer said the crop could provide agriculture and manufacturing jobs in Kentucky, as it once did during World War II. In the 1970s, Congress made hemp and marijuana Schedule 1 narcotics, making it illegal to grow them without a permit from the Drug Enforcement Agency.
However, products containing hemp can be sold in the United States. The crop can be turned into paper, clothing, food, biofuels, lotions and many other products.
Comer said at least three companies have approached him about coming to Kentucky if federal and state leaders lift the ban. Those companies do not want any incentives to come to Kentucky, he said.
"It will create jobs now without the state going into debt or having to bond any money," he said.
Senate Bill 50, filed Friday by Republican Sen. Paul Hornback of Shelbyville, would require people to obtain a license to grow hemp if the federal government lifts its ban. Applicants would have to pass a criminal background check and copies of each license would be sent to Kentucky State Police.
"Not only will it create jobs in agriculture, it will create jobs in manufacturing — new jobs in Kentucky," Hornback said.
State Rep. Terry Mills, D-Lebanon, has filed similar legislation. House Bill 33 would give law enforcement more authority to track hemp producers while Hornback's bill would give the Department of Agriculture more oversight.
"I don't want us to move forward until everyone is comfortable," Mills said. "I am not interested in medicinal marijuana or recreational marijuana use; it's only about improving rural Kentucky, and that includes bettering the agriculture economy."