By John Cheves, The Lexington Herald-Leader
Frankfort, Kentucky — The state House yesterday voted for the return of industrial hemp to Kentucky, but only as a strictly regulated experiment at a public university.
Originally, House Majority Whip Joe Barrows wanted the General Assembly to allow farmers to grow hemp statewide as a partial replacement for tobacco, which is losing its value as a cash crop. The stalks, seeds and oil of hemp grown in other countries are used in a variety of products.
But Barrows compromised on House Bill 855 by agreeing to limit industrial hemp growth to university research. Too many lawmakers feared that allowing industrial hemp on farms also would encourage covert cultivation of marijuana, said Barrows, D-Versailles.
“The evidence is out there that suggests that (industrial hemp) is a viable agricultural alternative crop and that we ought to pursue that in Kentucky,” said Barrows.
However, he added, “Many issues that come to this legislature require a process of education and building confidence before members are willing to take a great big leap.”
Industrial hemp and marijuana are subspecies of the Cannabis plant. Industrial hemp has much lower levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical that gives people a high when they ingest marijuana. Despite that difference, and despite a long history of hemp production in Kentucky until after World War II, state law defines any Cannabis plant as marijuana, and therefore illegal.
The House voted 63-31 in favor of HB 855. As amended, the bill would require the Kentucky Agriculture Department and one of the state’s research universities to grow industrial hemp for study, and to explore the economic benefits of hemp production. The Council on Postsecondary Education would choose one university from those that apply.
Federal law does not prohibit industrial hemp production, although states that want to grow hemp as Hawaii began to in December must receive permits and follow strict rules set by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
In two years, the General Assembly can return to the subject and perhaps decide to allow industrial hemp production statewide based on what it has learned, Barrows said.
HB 855 still has a bumpy road ahead, including the Republican-controlled Senate and Gov. Paul Patton, who yesterday repeated his concerns that industrial hemp plants could be used as camouflage for marijuana plants.
Some House members who voted against the bill yesterday echoed that concern.
Some also questioned whether the plants were truly that different.
But yesterday’s vote continued Kentucky’s drift away from total opposition to hemp.
The Kentucky Supreme Court is considering a challenge to the law that equates hemp with marijuana; two lower courts have ruled the law is overly broad. And on Tuesday, four former governors Louie Nunn, Edward “Ned” Breathitt, Julian Carroll and Brereton Jones endorsed the original version of HB 855 that would have allowed hemp farming statewide.
About a dozen hemp advocates, watching the vote from the House gallery, said the slower approach satisfied them.
“This may be our best way through the door,” said Donald Coulter, president of Hemp Fed Beef in Willisburg, wearing a hemp button-down shirt with a hemp necktie for the occasion.
“We need time to educate the public and our local, state and federal law enforcement,” Coulter said. “Canada did five or six years of study before they started their first production crop a few years ago. Since then, they haven’t looked back.”
Some of hemp’s supporters in the House preferred the original bill but voted for the amended version. If Kentucky falls behind other states that now have permission to grow hemp Hawaii, North Dakota and Minnesota it could lose a foothold in the hemp products market, warned Rep. Steve Nunn, R-Glasgow.
“I’m disappointed that we are postponing a decision that could help farmers in our state, for two years or more, largely out of fear and misunderstanding,” Nunn said. “I think it’s an opportunity lost forever.”
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