Comer to travel to Washington to lobby for Kentucky hemp

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer
Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer 2012 Herald-Leader file photo

Agriculture Commissioner James Comer will travel to Washington on Tuesday to lobby for Kentucky farmers to be allowed to grow industrial hemp for the first time in decades.

"My colleagues and I will make the case that industrial hemp has the potential to create revenue and jobs," Comer said. "Thanks to the efforts of the General Assembly, we also can say that Kentucky is ready to set up a regulatory framework that will enable us to not only revive our hemp industry but do it in the right way."

Comer said Monday that he thinks the state's chances are "pretty good," based on the meetings he's been able to get to discuss the topic.

Comer will be accompanied by former Kentucky state treasurer Jonathan Miller, who is on the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission, and joined by state Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, to meet with high-level officials from the White House, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, and congressional leaders in the House and Senate.

Comer plans to argue that Kentucky's recently passed licensing program makes it the perfect pilot for growing hemp. But he also will lobby for the federal bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Vanceburg, and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, that would distinguish hemp from marijuana. U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, also has signed on to sponsor the bill.

But changing the law also would allow other states to grow hemp, a crop that is now outlawed along with its drug-producing relative.

Kentucky wants to be first, Comer said.

He does not know when federal officials will give him a response but Comer hopes to know by late November.

"If we want to have the crop in the ground by next year, we need to have a clear indication that they will allow this to happen by late fall. No farmer will plant without a contract to sell, and the producers need to be established here by next spring," Comer said.

He said that several other states have showed increased interest in the crop now that the General Assembly overwhelmingly passed Kentucky's law in March.

"I think a lot of leaders in agriculture were watching to see if we could pull this off, in a Southern state with a lot of conservative voters," Comer said.

Seven of the eight members of Kentucky's congressional delegation — all except U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset — also have sent a letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration asking for clarification on the interpretation that hemp is marijuana.