McConnell backs Kentucky's hemp-legalization efforts

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. Herald-Leader

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, has endorsed efforts in Kentucky to legalize industrial hemp.

In a statement released by his Washington office, McConnell said:

"After long discussions with Senator Rand Paul and Commissioner James Comer on the economic benefits of industrialized hemp, I am convinced that allowing its production will be a positive development for Kentucky's farm families and economy."

Agriculture Commissioner James Comer's office said he welcomed the support from McConnell, who is the Senate minority leader. It came three days after Kentucky law enforcement officers released a statement opposing it, calling industrial hemp a step toward legal marijuana.

In his statement, McConnell addressed those concerns:

"Commissioner Comer has assured me that his office is committed to pursuing industrialized hemp production in a way that does not compromise Kentucky law enforcement's marijuana eradication efforts or in any way promote illegal drug use."

After conversations with Comer and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, on the economic potential for industrial hemp, McConnell apparently came down on the side of jobs.

"The utilization of hemp to produce everything from clothing to paper is real, and if there is a capacity to center a new domestic industry in Kentucky that will create jobs in these difficult economic times, that sounds like a good thing to me," he said in the statement.

Comer said in a statement, "When the most powerful Republican in the country calls to discuss your issue, that's a good day on the job. Leader McConnell's support adds immeasurable strength to our efforts to bring good jobs to Kentucky."

In a statement posted on Facebook on Thursday, U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, said he remained unconvinced about hemp.

"My first concern is the challenge facing our thinly stretched marijuana eradication teams and law enforcement in visually distinguishing the two plants," according to the statement shared with Kentucky Educational Television. "This confusion and potential co-mingling lends itself to an easier path for illegal marijuana growth in the Commonwealth. Secondly, there appears little evidence to date that hemp will be an economic boon for Kentucky when the USDA describes the hemp market as 'small (and) thin.'"

On Feb. 11, Comer will testify before the Kentucky Senate Agriculture Committee on Senate Bill 50, sponsored by state Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville. The bill would license farmers to grow industrial hemp under KDA regulations if federal restrictions are lifted. Hemp cultivation is banned because it is classified with marijuana, although hemp has extremely low levels of the active drug THC.

Comer will be joined by Paul, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, and U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Garrison.

Paul has filed federal legislation to differentiate between hemp and marijuana, and he and Yarmuth plan to lobby Washington for a waiver for Kentucky to grow hemp if the regulatory legislation passes.

The bill has the backing of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, and on Thursday, the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce also voted to endorse it after hearing from Hornback and state Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, the state Senate Majority Floor Leader.

While Hornback, who chairs the state Senate Agriculture Committee has said that the bill will pass the committee and likely the state Senate, the Kentucky House has expressed reluctance to take up hemp.

In a statement, Comer said Thursday, "This is going to be a very difficult issue for the House to ignore."

But law enforcement officers who oppose the hemp efforts are unmoved.

"I think, while our association has the utmost respect for Senator McConnell, this is just an issue we will have to agree to disagree on," said Tommy Loving, executive director of the Kentucky Narcotics' Officers Association. "I can't see a compromise we can make on this point, given the appearance of the plant."

Also on Thursday, the pro-hemp movement gained support from Lexington's Urban County Council, which unanimously approved a resolution supporting efforts toward legalization and regulation of industrialized hemp. The vote followed a presentation by Holly Harris, chief of staff for Comer, who emphasized industrialized hemp's potential benefits to the Kentucky economy.

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