By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
Proponents of legalizing industrial hemp in Kentucky say momentum for their cause is growing. But, some key law enforcement agencies still aren’t enamored of the idea.
Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer convened the resurrected Kentucky Hemp Commission for a meeting Monday by saying: “We are very aggressively seeking the input from law enforcement.”
But just before the meeting began, a law enforcement official on the commission issued a press release opposing legalizing the plant, which is biologically similar to marijuana, although it contains only trace amounts of the chemical THC, which produces the marijuana high.
Dan Smoot, of the Kentucky Association of Chiefs of Police and president of Operation UNITE, a drug education, treatment and enforcement organization working in eastern Kentucky, said supporters are looking “through rose-colored glasses if they believe hemp production would be a good alternative crop or provide an economic boon.”
He said there isn’t a great demand for the crop, and legalizing its production “would create more problems than benefits and is currently not permitted under federal law.”
On top of that, Smoot and Kentucky State Police Maj. Anthony Terry, both members of the commission who were not at Monday’s meeting, claimed they weren’t notified of the session.
But Holly VonLuehrte, general counsel for the Agriculture Department, said both men “absolutely were informed of the meeting.”
VonLuehrte provided a copy of a letter dated Jan. 22 and addressed to Smoot at his London address announcing the special meeting and notes from special assistant Mary Tinnon indicating she had called Smoot.
But Smoot and Terry both said they never received a letter, email or any other notification. Terry said he was out of the office last Friday but, as of 3 p.m. Monday, had not seen the letter.
Kentucky was once a national leader in hemp production and supporters say it could be a significant cash crop again for its farmers. However, it is presently against federal law to grow hemp because of the difficulty of distinguishing it from marijuana. (It is legal to import hemp products but not to grow the plant.)
Supporters say allowing production will create jobs in paper manufacturing, manufacture of interior materials for the auto industry, biofuels, clothing and other products, even plywood. Comer said it’s a “sustainable, greener crop” as well.
Kentucky Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and Democratic U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth support the idea and have said they’ll lobby the Obama administration to offer Kentucky a waiver to grow the crop if the legislature passes a bill setting up regulations.
Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, a member of the commission, has filed a bill which would authorize the Department of Agriculture to license and inspect production, including Global Positioning System mapping of licensed growing operations, notification of the state police of licensed growing areas and background checks for growers.
Hornback said Kentucky should have hemp regulations in place in case the federal government relaxes restrictions so it won’t lose ground to other states interested in growing the crop.
“It’s one of those things if you’re not first, you’ll be last,” Hornback said.
But some law enforcement agencies are skeptical, notably the Kentucky State Police.
“It is impossible to distinguish between hemp and marijuana with the naked eye,” KSP Commissioner Rodney Brewer said.
He said he feared marijuana could be grown among hemp plants and law enforcement couldn’t detect the illegal plants. He and Smoot also are concerned about costs.
Brewer said the only way to distinguish between the plants is expensive laboratory testing. He and Smoot said those arrested for marijuana possession will maintain the substance is hemp, requiring time-consuming and expensive testing.
Jim Higdon, a member of the commission, said those are false concerns, that hemp will easily cross-pollinate with marijuana plants and ultimately eliminate marijuana. He said the KSP is more concerned with retaining federal grant money for the eradication of marijuana so it can continue to employ personnel.
Brewer said it’s misleading to say hemp contains no THC and can’t be used to achieve a high, although it requires more of the plant than marijuana. He said cross-pollination produces a milder form of marijuana but also a more potent form of hemp.
Smoot and Brewer both said they also are skeptical of supporters’ claims the crop would be an economic boon for farmers.
Comer agreed that at least “in the beginning there’s only going to be a limited demand for hemp” but says Kentucky can dominate that market if it gets production underway before other states. And he says there are companies ready to come to Kentucky if hemp production is legalized.
Gov. Steve Beshear has said he doesn’t object to finding a new crop or market for Kentucky farmers, but he wants first to be fully satisfied law enforcement has no problems.
Comer, a former state legislator, said there is “overwhelming public support,” and he believes there are sufficient votes in the state House and Senate to approve Hornback’s bill.
He said the legislation is supported by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and Kentucky Association of Counties.
However Shellie Hampton, director of governmental relations for KACo, said that endorsement is qualified on the support of law enforcement.
The commission Monday discussed ways to promote the cause, including spending $2,000 for radio ads (the money comes from private donations) and a “hemp fashion show.”
It is also planning a rally along with a hearing on Hornback’s bill at a February meeting of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which is chaired by Hornback. Comer said Monday he expects Paul and others to attend the meeting.
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.