Hemp bill to get hearing but might be blocked from vote

Agriculture Commissioner James Comer
Agriculture Commissioner James Comer HERALD-LEADER

A bill to license Kentucky farmers to grow hemp if federal restrictions are lifted is likely to get a hearing Feb. 11 in the state Senate Agricultural Committee, where it will be assigned once the General Assembly reconvenes next month. It isn't clear, though, whether the bill will get a vote.

Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Georgetown, chairman of the committee and sponsor of Senate Bill 50, said the Senate Republican Caucus might block the committee from voting.

"They could," Hornback said Friday. "It has happened before."

The caucus will discuss the bill in a closed-door meeting Feb. 6.

Lourdes Baez-Schrader, spokeswoman for Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said that whether the agriculture committee votes will be up to Hornback.

"It is ultimately the decision of the chairman whether or not to call a bill up for a vote in his committee," Baez-Schrader said. "As sponsor of SB 50, Chairman Hornback will be getting a sense of the caucus of their position on the bill before the committee meeting and what he does with that information is purely his prerogative."

Hornback said he thinks there are enough votes to get it out of committee and through the Senate.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, agreed.

"I think the hemp bill has the votes to get out of committee," he said, "and there's growing support for it in the Senate."

Hornback said Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and officials from the Kentucky State Police will answer questions from lawmakers about the legislation.

Comer has been a strong advocate for allowing Kentucky farmers to position themselves to be among the first to grow hemp if federal prohibitions are eased.

State police officials have said they have concerns that allowing hemp cultivation will interfere with their efforts to eradicate marijuana.

Comer said no one would be planting marijuana anywhere near hemp.

"Every dope grower in Kentucky knows that if hemp cross-pollinates with marijuana, it ruins the marijuana," he said.

Comer said Friday that a secret vote on whether to allow a public vote smacks of a lack of transparency.

"As a Republican, that's totally against what we should be standing for," Comer said.

"At the end of the day, I'm confident the Senate Republicans will have the courage to take a public vote on this issue. It's a very important issue and received a lot of media attention from all over the country — very positive attention."

He compared the behind-the-scenes negotiations to political maneuvering in Washington, and he said voters are sick of it.

"I think if people knew, ... they'd be sick about this, too," Comer said.

Hornback said he thinks Senate leadership ultimately will treat the bill fairly.

"I think it's a good bill, that it's progressive for Kentucky," he said. "Kentucky needs to be on the forefront if there is something coming down the pipe when federal law is changed. ... I'm tired of seeing Kentucky on the back burner and being late on everything. If it does pass Congress, then you'll have to be one of the first states to start ... or you'll be left behind."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader