Drug enforcement groups criticize hemp efforts

In 1942, fields of hemp could be found in Fayette County.
In 1942, fields of hemp could be found in Fayette County. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Two law enforcement groups on Monday criticized efforts to revive hemp production in Kentucky as economically unsound.

In a joint news release, the Kentucky Narcotic Officers' Association and Operation UNITE said they opposed Senate Bill 50 and House Bill 33, both of which would license farmers to grow industrial hemp.

"All the rhetoric you're hearing from the small group of proponents seeking to reintroduce hemp cultivation is based on desired outcomes, not reality," said Dan Smoot, vice president of Operation UNITE, an anti-drug organization covering 32 counties in southern and Eastern Kentucky. Its name is an acronym for Unlawful Narcotics Investigations, Treatment and Education.

Agriculture Commissioner James Comer has been lobbying for SB 50, sponsored by Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Paul Hornback. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, will testify.

In a statement, Comer said he was very concerned about the law enforcement groups' stance.

"Senate Bill 50 does not legalize industrial hemp. It sets up a framework if there's movement on the federal level," said Comer's chief of staff, Holly VonLuehrte.

The Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission, chaired by Comer, on Monday authorized a study by the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture to assess hemp's economic potential. The study should be ready by early summer.

Comer said the law enforcement officials "stepped way out of their lane" by attacking the economics of hemp.

"When you've got marijuana growers and certain members of law enforcement on the same side, there's a problem," Comer said in a statement.

He and officials from the Kentucky State Police will address the Senate Republican caucus next week in advance of a Feb. 11 hearing in Hornback's committee.

The law enforcement officials said in their news release that more information was needed on how good hemp might be for the state and how bad it might be for drug-enforcement efforts.

"You have some prominent people supporting Senate Bill 50 and House Bill 33, but they are looking through rose-colored glasses if they believe hemp production would be a good alternative crop or provide an economic boom," Smoot said in the release. "Hemp is not in demand, would cause more problems than benefits, and is currently not permitted under federal law."

Smoot and others are skeptical that hemp could create thousands of jobs, as Comer has said.

"Is there a limited market for industrial hemp? Probably so, but the market is not going to be as great as they're proposing it to be," said Sheriff Kevin Johnson of Clay County.

Under federal law enforcement restrictions, hemp may not be grown because it is the same basic plant as marijuana. Paul has filed legislation to distinguish between them based on the low level of the drug THC in hemp.

But Kentucky law enforcement officers expressed concerns that hemp cultivation would hurt their efforts to eradicate marijuana.

"I believe this is just the first step in the process to legalize marijuana, which I'm definitely against," Johnson said. "it has the potential of creating mass confusion and problems for law enforcement."

According to the news release, more than 370 members of the Kentucky Narcotics Officers' Association voted unanimously in November to oppose hemp legislation. The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce supports the bills.

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