By John Cheves, Lexington Herald-Leader
Frankfort, Kentucky — Industrial hemp, a cousin to marijuana but without that plant’s psychedelic kick, might return to Kentucky farms after an absence of about 60 years.
House Bill 855, filed last week, would legalize industrial hemp farming and establish a continuing study of the crop’s agricultural potential.
Critics, including Gov. Paul Patton and the Kentucky State Police, oppose the production of hemp because of its close association with marijuana. But hemp supporters say tobacco’s rapid downfall has left Kentucky with few other farming options.
“We’re at a point in time with our agricultural economy that I think it’s time for this bill,” House Majority Whip Joe Barrows, D-Versailles, said Thursday at a House Agriculture and Small Business Committee meeting.
Barrows and Rep. Roger Thomas, D-Smiths Grove, the committee chairman, are the bill’s co-sponsors. Thomas said he will call for more testimony and a committee vote next week.
Industrial hemp’s supporters consider it a botanical super hero, a versatile, disease-resistant plant of many uses. Grown in other nations, its stalks, fibers, seeds and oils help create rope, paper, clothing, animal feed, plastic and a variety of other products.
In 1998, a University of Kentucky study predicted that Kentucky could reap hundreds of farm jobs and millions of dollars from hemp, softening the impact of tobacco’s dwindling value.
“This is the beginning of a new agricultural industry for Kentucky,” said Joe Hickey, executive director of the Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative.
“It’s about time,” Hickey said. “With Kentucky tobacco going, with the loss of 65 percent of the tobacco base in the last two years, this could be a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Traditionally, legalizing hemp production has been a tough row to hoe. The federal and state governments cracked down on Cannabis sativa L., the plant that produces industrial hemp and marijuana, after World War II, in an effort to control narcotic drugs.
Industrial hemp and marijuana are separate subspecies; marijuana has from five to 20 times the level of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, a substance that can produce a relaxing buzz when ingested. But Kentucky’s legal definition of marijuana includes all cannabis plants.
Some anti-drug advocates say it’s the specter of marijuana that makes them uneasy about hemp. That sentiment helped kill a 1998 hemp-production bill in the General Assembly, and it might do so again this year, said House Minority Leader Danny Ford, R-Mount Vernon.
“It would tend to be something I would not support,” Ford said. “My understanding is that there is a great deal of similarity between the two, and that’s something that would concern me, if it’s true.”
But in some ways, hemp’s chances couldn’t be better this year.
In December, Hawaii became the first state to resume hemp production on a limited basis for research. The Illinois state Senate passed a bill last month that would allow the same gradual return to hemp farming.
If Kentucky wants to be a player in the hemp market, it must move quickly, said Ivey Henton, a Woodford County farmer and owner of Hemp Universe, a Lexington store.
“We’re going to want to be one of the first states to grow hemp,” Henton said. “We’re not going to want to trail behind once everyone else has started doing it.”
Federal law does not prevent the states from growing hemp, but there are complicated and expensive regulations for hemp production created by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Any state that grows hemp must follow those rules for now.
Meanwhile, the Kentucky Supreme Court is considering a challenge to the state’s definition of marijuana. The case is a prosecution of actor Woody Harrelson, who planted hemp seeds in Lee County in 1996 as a protest. Two lower courts have sided with Harrelson, calling the state law overly broad for prohibiting hemp production as well as marijuana. One potential obstacle for HB 855 is law enforcement.
The bill would require the Kentucky Agriculture Department to license hemp farmers, and it would allow the department to inspect hemp in fields or barns to be certain the THC content was 1 percent or less. But the Kentucky State Police, which opposed the 1998 bill and opposes this one, worries that keeping marijuana in check would be a “nightmare.”
Police fears about marijuana growers convinced the governor to oppose hemp farming when the 1998 bill was being considered, said John-Mark Hack, Patton’s agricultural policy adviser.
“What would stop someone from planting two or three rows of marijuana in the middle of a field of hemp?” asked state police spokesman Lt. Kevin Payne. “You can’t see any difference from a helicopter. Our only way of telling the difference would be to have the plants chemically analyzed, and that just isn’t practical.”
To farmers, that seems like a weak argument, Henton said. Industrial hemp and marijuana aggressively cross-pollinate, so planting them near each other would result in a less-useful hybrid with a low THC count, she said.
“If you planted them together, they’d ruin each other,” she said.
Staff writer Andy Mead contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2000, The Lexington Herald-Leader. All rights reserved.