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State adopts framework for hemp production

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Local legislators say crop may prove viable

By Marty Finley

The Kentucky legislature this week approved regulatory framework to license industrial hemp farming should the federal government relax its prohibitions on production of the crop.

Local lawmakers celebrated the vote Wednesday and said it would place Kentucky on the cutting edge of hemp production with a relaxation in federal laws while law enforcement officials cited concerns about enforcement and a need for officer education to define the differences between hemp and marijuana.

The legislation as approved creates an avenue for farmers to be licensed in hemp production through the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission under the control of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. The state also plans to develop a research component through the University of Kentucky and pursue a federal waiver for a pilot industrial hemp production program.

Sen. Dennis Parrett, D-Elizabethtown, said the bill readies Kentucky for any changes in federal law and allows it to explore production. Parrett said he knows a market exists for hemp

because industrial hemp fibers are used to construct dashboards in some automobiles and helps in the manufacture of certain cosmetics and paper products.

Parrett said Kentucky does not yet recognize where the market lies or how viable hemp could be as a crop, but said it is worth pursuing if it could bring revenue and jobs to the state.

“It may be a bust in 10 years,” he said.

Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, a proponent of the bill, believes hemp production holds economic value and has called on Washington to lift the ban.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, hemp is part of the cannabis plant family that includes marijuana and is derived from stalks and sterilized seeds. Marijuana, meanwhile, is derived from the buds, leaves and resin of the plants. However, the DEA does not differentiate between hemp and marijuana in its classification because both contain levels of tetrahydrocannabinols — THC — a hallucinogenic substance that creates a psychoactive high.

Ron Eckart, director of the Greater Hardin County Narcotics Task Force, said the difference between hemp and marijuana is in the THC content. Compared to marijuana, hemp contains a small amount of the hallucinogen.

In the past, industrial hemp growers have mixed male and female plants while marijuana cultivators typically remove male plants because they have a lower THC content, he said. Cannabis plants used for industrial hemp have taller stalks and fewer leaves than those grown for marijuana cultivation.

Kentucky lawmakers in Washington have sponsored legislation to change the federal status of hemp and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, released a statement Wednesday saying he will pursue a federal waiver for the state now that the legal framework is in place.

Parrett said some worry farmers may try to hide marijuana inside industrial hemp fields should they be granted a license, but that scenario is unlikely because farmers would be required to submit to background checks and register their crops with the state. As part of the requirement, Parrett said, farmers must provide the exact coordinates of the field for possible inspection by Kentucky State Police.

“It would be kind of dumb to put an illegal crop in a field and risk losing your farm,” Parrett said. “You don’t just lose your crop, you lose your farm.”

Parrett said the legislation puts KSP in charge of conducting background checks on applicants for licenses and tasks the agency with enforcement, including monitoring and testing fields.

Capt. John Ward, commander of KSP Post 4 in Elizabethtown, said his agency’s concern is the potential problems troopers face in differentiating between hemp and marijuana. Ward said inspecting fields and accurately separating the two substances could clog crime labs.

“That’s my major concern” he said.

Ward had not read the bill as of Wednesday afternoon so he was not familiar with the specifics, but he expressed confidence any production would be tightly controlled.

Elizabethtown Police Chief Tracy Schiller said police departments will have to instruct officers how to recognize the physical and chemical differences between hemp and marijuana plants.

“More than anything else, it’s going to be an issue of being educated,” he said.

Should hemp ever become legal at the federal level, Parrett believes it would be cultivated in smaller forest or cattle farms in central and southern Kentucky rather than large soybean and corn fields in western Kentucky.

Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, agreed and said developing the pilot program is key in placing the state on the front lines of hemp development nationally. Lee said one of the steps Kentucky must take is determining whether hemp is a practical cash crop and convincing farmers to invest in its production.

“It’s pretty difficult to get farmers to dedicate 10 acres or more when growing soybeans and corn, which make money, (are) so productive to grow and so lucrative to their business,” Lee said.

Marty Finley can be reached at (270) 505-1762 or mfinley@thenewsenterprise.com. Sarah Bennett can be reached at (270) 505-1750 or sbennett@thenewsenterprise.com.