State Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles looked on with a smile Tuesday as the state Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill to change how Kentucky’s industrial hemp program is run.
Quarles later said Senate Bill 218, which the Senate approved on a 35-0 vote and sent to the House for its consideration, is the product of six months of work among his department, the Kentucky State Police and the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.
He also noted it has the support of Gov. Matt Bevin and state Justice and Public Safety Secretary John Tilley.
The bill “will improve the framework of a growing industrial hemp program in Kentucky,” said Quarles.
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Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said the bill rewrites the legal framework state lawmakers enacted in 2013 to create an industrial hemp program so that it is more aligned with the federal 2014 Farm Bill. It authorized state-level research pilot programs.
Thayer noted how difficult it was to pass a hemp bill in the state legislature four years ago compared to how easily it sailed through the Senate Tuesday. “I still have the scars from 2013,” he said.
The bill, said Thayer, authorizes the state Department of Agriculture to promulgate administrative regulations for the program, replaces the old Hemp Commission with a new Industrial Hemp Advisory Board to give input to the state agriculture department and gives UK’s regulatory services laboratory responsibility for testing the level of THC in the plants.
THC is the chemical in the plant that produces psychological effects. Plants with higher THC levels are considered to be marijuana, which remains illegal in Kentucky.
The bill also includes several law-enforcement standards, including annual criminal backgrounds for people licensed to grow hemp, a 10-year program ban for any licensee convicted of any felony and a 10-year ban for any licensee convicted of a drug-related misdemeanor.
It keeps the requirement that applicants for licenses must submit GPS coordinates for growing locations.
Thayer said the bill increases transparency by creating a process for suspension and revocation of licenses, with rights of appeal to a three-person administrative panel, and allowing disappointed applicants to appeal to a three-person panel.
Quarles, of Scott County, said this year will mark the state’s largest industrial hemp crop under the program, with more than 12,000 acres approved to be grown.
“This makes us the largest industrial hemp research program in the United States,” Quarles said. “We are proud to have 40 processors with brick-and-mortar locations in Kentucky, the highest ever, that are turning this raw product into intermediate or final materials.”
Quarles stressed that Kentucky is focusing only on industrial hemp and not marijuana.
“Its potential uses are unlimited,” he said, noting that an automotive company is experimenting with high-stress fibers made of hemp.