By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
FRANKFORT — Throughout a two-month fight in the General Assembly to license hemp cultivation — assuming the federal government allows it — supporters claimed many virtues for the kindred plant of marijuana.
Maybe they should have claimed it offers powers of longevity and restoration.
Because just when the idea seemed beyond resuscitation, it rose from the dead Tuesday night in the final minutes of the 2013 General Assembly.
Senate Bill 50, sponsored by Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, and pushed hard by Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, seemed dead late Tuesday when Hornback ended negotiations on an amendment by House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook.
Among other things, Adkins’ amendment placed the Hemp Commission with the University of Kentucky rather than the Department of Agriculture, changed the makeup of the commission, and required a five-year study. Hornback and Comer said they couldn’t agree to those changes and Comer apparently departed the Capitol thinking his signature issue had died — at least for this year.
But Comer returned to the Capitol after word spread that Adkins and Hornback had resumed negotiations and just after 11 p.m., the Democratic House passed an amended version of the bill 88-4.
As time ran out — the session had to end by midnight, according to the state constitution — Comer appeared outside the Senate, obviously weary but just as obviously relieved. Moments later, the Senate passed the measure 35-1.
“I’m very pleased,” Comer said, saying he was satisfied with the last-minute compromise between Adkins and Hornback. He said House Democrats faced “a lot of public pressure” to pass the bill after first appearing to kill it.
Comer said the latest changes to the bill were acceptable to him and indicated the commission would be housed with the Department of Agriculture.
The final measure also was revised to make him vice-chairman, rather than chairman, of the commission. Instead, the commission, which will include representatives of the legislature, universities, Kentucky State Police, the agriculture community and hemp promoters, will choose its chairman.
But there appeared to be confusion about the placement of the commission — the bill posted on the legislature’s website showing the version that was passed and enrolled appears to attach the commission to the University of Kentucky.
Section 9, paragraph (1) of the bill on the website reads: “The Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission is created and is attached to the University of Kentucky Experiment Station for administrative purposes.”
In several other sections, the language clearly indicates various licensing and regulatory functions are the responsibility of the Hemp Commission rather than the Department of Agriculture as Comer originally preferred.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, who was blamed by Comer and other supporters of the bill for its initial stalling in the House, said Wednesday the changes in the bill made it palatable to skeptics.
He agreed the final measure passed Tuesday attaches the commission to the University of Kentucky.
The Kentucky State Police, who had opposed the bill because they feared it would complicate marijuana eradication and law enforcement, will perform background checks on those applying for a growing license which will be issued by the commission.
The KSP commissioner and representatives of sheriffs’ and police chiefs’ associations will also be members of the commission.
Hemp cultivation is illegal under federal law and law enforcement agencies have generally opposed changing the law because of its biological kinship with marijuana. But hemp supporters say that plant contains much smaller levels of THC, the chemical which gives marijuana smokers a “high.”
They also contend it is easily distinguishable from marijuana because cultivators of each crop desire different densities and heights of the two plants. They say hemp actually poses a threat to marijuana plants because the two cross-pollinate and in doing so, the potency of the THC-chemical in marijuana is diminished in the offspring.
Proponents see a potentially vibrant market for industrial hemp from which fibers, bio-fuels and food products can be produced. Critics say those economic benefits are greatly exaggerated.
But Comer, Hornback and other proponents say Kentucky needs a licensing framework to put itself into a position to quickly take advantage of a market for the plant should the federal government loosen its prohibition on cultivating the plant or grants a waiver to a state to study its potential.
About 11 other states have already implemented such “regulatory frameworks.” Among those supporting Hornback’s measure and applauding passage of the compromise measure are Kentucky’s U.S. Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul and Congressmen Thomas Massie and John Yarmuth.
Comer said Wednesday he will work with the congressional delegation to seek a federal exemption allowing cultivation of hemp in Kentucky.
“We are closer to our goal of bringing hemp back to Kentucky than we have been in more than 60 years, and our work continues,” Comer said.
Because the bill passed on the last night of the session, lawmakers have no recourse should Gov. Steve Beshear veto the bill. During the long debate on the measure during the session, Beshear repeated concerns about the measure shared by KSP and other law enforcement agencies.
He has not said whether he might veto the bill.
Comer said Tuesday night he planned to talk with Beshear to urge him not to veto the law.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.