FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — The chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee sounded upbeat Monday about prospects for his bill that would regulate industrial hemp production in Kentucky if the federal government lifts its decades-long ban on the crop that once was a Bluegrass state staple.
Republican Sen. Paul Hornback of Shelbyville said Monday he intends to bring the hemp bill up for a vote in his committee, which is expected to review the legislation at a Feb. 11 hearing. Hemp proponent U.S. Sen. Rand Paul is scheduled to appear at the hearing and put his political weight behind the measure.
"I feel very good about it getting through the Senate Ag Committee," Hornback said in an interview prior to a meeting of the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission. "I feel very good about (its prospects in) the full Senate."
The state General Assembly resumes its regular 2013 session next week. The hemp bill's outlook in the House is less clear. House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said recently it would be difficult to pass any bill that doesn't have the support of Kentucky State Police.
State police oppose the bill, raising concerns about law enforcement being able to distinguish between hemp and its cousin, marijuana.
Hemp and marijuana are the same species, cannabis sativa, but are genetically distinct. Hemp has a negligible content of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.
Later Monday, several anti-drug groups issued a release criticizing efforts to re-establish hemp in Kentucky. They expressed concerns that people would pose as hemp producers to further marijuana operations.
"It would be very enticing for someone to obtain a license to grow hemp, then divert a small part of their fields to growing illegal marijuana," said Jere Hopson, director of the South Central Kentucky Drug Task Force. "Law enforcement wouldn't be able to tell the difference without testing, and how would you even know which plants to test?"
Hemp supporters say that marijuana growers would not want to try to conceal their pot crop in a hemp field because cross-pollination would greatly weaken the potency of the marijuana.
Dan Smoot, vice president of Operation UNITE, an anti-drug group in southern and eastern Kentucky, said hemp advocates are "looking through rose-colored glasses" in promoting the plant's potential to boost the state's economy.
"Hemp is not in demand, would cause more problems than benefits," he said in the release.
Hornback, a tobacco farmer, said he would like to find common ground with law enforcement skeptics of hemp. He said he understands their position opposing a crop that for now is banned by the federal government.
"Until the federal law changes, they should be opposed to it," Hornback said "That's their job."
Kentucky has the ideal climate and soils to grow hemp, he said, and the crop offers "an opportunity for niche markets." he said.
The versatile crop could create jobs in processing and manufacturing, Hornback said. At least a couple of Kentucky companies — a tobacco processor and a seed supplier — have expressed interest in branching out into hemp if the crop becomes legal again.
Hemp can be turned into paper, clothing, food, biofuels, auto parts, lotions and many other products.
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, has signaled that it is up to Hornback to decide whether to call for a committee vote on the bill.
Stivers' spokeswoman, Lourdes Baez-Schrader, said that state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and state police representatives have been invited to speak to Senate Republicans at a caucus meeting next week. Comer, a Republican, has championed the effort to re-establish hemp as a legal crop in Kentucky.
Comer said Monday that hemp legislation is supported by both House and Senate majorities.
"There's a desperate need out there to create some jobs and this is one bill that will do that," he said.
Asked about Stivers' position on the bill, Baez-Schrader said, "He knows that some members have concerns about industrial hemp and understands those concerns."
The bill has an ally in Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, who has signed on as a co-sponsor.
"I do think the hemp bill has some momentum but there are still some members who have questions," Thayer said recently. "I think a hearing will be able to help answer many of those questions."
Hornback's hemp bill would set up a framework to regulate the crop if the federal government gives its blessing for it to be grown legally in Kentucky.
Under the bill, the Kentucky agriculture department would license growers and inspect production. Growers would undergo criminal background checks and give GPS coordinates for their fields. Licenses would be valid for one year and would be recorded with state police. Anyone convicted of a felony within the last 10 years would not be eligible for a license to grow hemp.
Comer said the bill would put Kentucky at the forefront of the hemp movement if the crop is legalized by the federal government.
"If this bill passes, for the first time in a long time Kentucky will be the first state to do something and not the last," Comer said.