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ISSUE: Industrial hemp in Kentucky
OUR VIEW: Hemp Bill political power play in Frankfort
Much uncertainty surrounds the viability of industrial hemp as a commercial cash crop in Kentucky. One thing is certain, however. The bill intended to pave the way to reviving hemp growth in Kentucky — and whatever processing and manufacturing jobs might come with it — has been subjected to a roller-coaster of a political power struggle in Frankfort over the past several days.
Once cultivated primarily for use in making rope and canvas, proponents of legalization of the plant point to its versatility in a number of industries in markets stretching around the globe. But those who oppose it say there is not enough profitable demand for the plant’s fibers and oils to offset the problems growing it would create for drug enforcement agents fighting illegal marijuana in the Commonwealth.
Championed by Kentucky Agricultural Commissioner James Comer, Senate Bill 50 — legislation intended to establish a state regulatory system for the crop in advance of federal decisions on the movement to legalize it — passed with a bipartisan vote of 31-6 in the Senate. But when the bill made its way to the House Agriculture and Small Business committee last week, committee chairman Rep. Tom McKee, D-Cynthiana, refused to allow a the bill to see a vote.
McKee said he planned to introduce a substitute piece of legislation he described as a “more aggressive” approach in setting up a field study through the University of Kentucky.
As if blocking the vote weren’t enough to anger hemp supporters, McKee’s substitute bill remained a mystery for days with Comer and other legislative supporters of SB 50 saying they hadn’t been allowed to see it. With time for any action or future for hemp quickly running out in this General Assembly, SB 50 supporters continued to cry foul.
The hemp bill is the only piece of potential jobs creation legislation related to agriculture that McKee’s committee has been handed during this General Assembly. Why would he want to see it stymied in his House panel?
In a word: politics. The roadblock reeks of a political power play.
Both hemp and its close botanical cousin, marijuana, are included on the list of heavily restricted substances defined by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Because of this, UK researchers would need a federal permit to legally grow the plant in the study. Had the original bill passed, the same also would be true for any farmer in the state wishing to invest in hemp cultivation on their land unless hemp is removed from federal designation as a Schedule 1 drug.
In order for UK to conduct the research McKee thinks is necessary, the university also would require funding from state government to do so. Pulling state funds for this purpose from an already strapped budget is questionable at best. Why not position farmers to make their own choice whether to invest in hemp as opposed to another cash crop as SB 50 would have provided?
Comer, a Republican, is among a short list of possible candidates for the governor’s race in 2015. House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonburg, has been publically cool to the idea of hemp’s return to Kentucky’s agriculture. He’s raised questions about its impact on marijuana eradication by law enforcement, whether farmers would raise it rather than more lucrative crops, and whether private industry would locate hemp fiber and seed oil production plants in the state — all valid questions.
But aside from his elusiveness about his desire to run, Stumbo also is looked upon as a potential candidate for the coming governor’s race. Regardless of whether hemp is a risk worth taking as an agricultural industry in Kentucky, it appeared approving the bill wasn’t a political risk McKee and Stumbo wanted taken in the House.
Enough pressure appears to have come down on McKee as a result of his block of the bill. Even though his mysterious alternative to the bill was never produced, he has publicly agreed to allow a vote on the original bill in a meeting of his House committee today.
Regardless of whether the bill passes or not, Kentucky farmers can be left with one lasting impression. McKee and Stumbo were far more concerned with denying Comer a political victory through the bill’s passage, than with positioning them for a chance to give the crop a go.
This editorial represents a consensus of The News-Enterprise's editorial board.