By Andy Mead, The Lexington Herald-Leader
Frankfort, Kentucky — A bill that would allow Kentucky farmers to grow hemp squeaked out of the House Agriculture and Small Business Committee yesterday, but appears unlikely to become law.
“Realistically, it’s late in the session and it’s a long shot to pass both houses,” said Rep. Joe Barrows, D-Versailles, the sponsor of House Bill 855.
Barrows said he had expected it would take more than one session of the General Assembly for legislators to reach the “comfort level” they need to bless a crop that police say would harm their efforts to stop marijuana growers.
“I would like to start by saying that industrial hemp is marijuana,” Kentucky State Police Maj. Joe Williams told the committee.
Hemp supporters told committee members that Williams is wrong.
Andy Graves of Lexington, president of the Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative, said it is easy to distinguish hemp from marijuana because hemp is cultivated to grow tall and straight and marijuana short and bushy.
“When you lump hemp and marijuana, it’s like saying a Rottweiler-poodle,” he said, adding that hemp has only a negligible amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical that gives marijuana smokers a high.
Joe Hickey, the hemp co-op’s executive director, said no one could hide marijuana in a hemp field because hemp is cut before marijuana is ready to be harvested.
Barrows said his bill would require hemp farmers to register with the state, tell where they plant their crop, allow police inspections and buy only state-supplied low-THC seed.
Hemp farmers also would have to get a permit from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
The committee approved the bill 11-8. Several members said they want to do something for farmers facing a bleak tobacco future, but most said they have concerns about hemp and voted only to move it to the full House for further debate.
Several years ago, hemp supporters hoped Kentucky could get on the cutting edge of a move to bring the versatile crop back into production.
In 1994, then-Gov. Brereton Jones appointed a task force to study the issue, but it produced a skeptical and controversial report.
Also in 1994, the hemp growers’ co-op was formed, and its leaders became active in efforts to legalize the crop in other states.
A bill that would have required university research into hemp was introduced in the 1998 legislative session, but it went nowhere.
Hemp supporters say there still is time for Kentucky to get into the early stages of hemp production, but even if HB 855 is approved, there will be competition.
Hawaii is preparing to harvest its first research crop. Legislatures in Minnesota and North Dakota approved growing the crop and farmers there are seeking DEA permits. Illinois appears poised to follow suit.
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