FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Momentum for a bill laying the groundwork for a possible industrial hemp comeback skidded to a halt Wednesday when a Kentucky House panel failed to vote on the measure, which would set up state oversight of the one-time agricultural staple if the federal government pardons the illegal crop.
The House Agriculture and Small Business Committee heard nearly two hours of testimony but took no action on the measure, which would allow the state agriculture department to license hemp growers if production becomes legal. A lawmaker's motion seeking a vote was ruled out of order by committee Chairman Tom McKee.
McKee wants to overhaul the bill to allow a university-led study of hemp, which thrived in Kentucky generations ago but has been banned for decades since the federal government classified it as a controlled substance related to marijuana. Hemp has a negligible content of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.
McKee, D-Cynthiana, never called for a vote on his proposed substitute, and hemp supporters said it showed he didn't have enough committee support.
Later Wednesday, McKee reconvened the committee briefly during a recess on the House floor, but no action was taken on the bill.
Hemp supporters, led by Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, a Republican, criticized McKee for stalling the bill.
They urged the committee to resist a rewrite and to advance the version that easily passed the GOP-led Senate. They said the bill would put Kentucky at the forefront of the national hemp movement if the federal ban on the crop is ever lifted. The bill also includes safeguards to monitor hemp production that would benefit law enforcement, they said.
Comer said that McKee — his longtime House colleague — had "pulled the rug out from under all of us."
McKee said the hearing Wednesday was the first chance for his committee to delve into the bill.
Asked if the hemp bill was dead, he replied, "No, I don't think so. We'd like to do something this year," he added, referring to his proposed changes to study hemp.
McKee, a northern Kentucky farmer, insisted his changes would be a "much more aggressive" way to promote hemp. His version would enable researchers to seek a federal permit to allow experimental hemp production in hopes of having a crop this year, he said.
Comer said the bill would overwhelmingly pass the House if given the chance.
Under the Senate-passed bill, the state would have GPS coordinates of licensed hemp fields. Hemp growers would undergo criminal background checks, and each grower would be limited to 10 acres per license. A production license would be valid for one year.
Hemp languished as a fringe issue for years but has emerged as a hotly debated topic as Comer championed the crop while traveling the state.
Comer says hemp's reintroduction would give farmers a new crop and would create processing jobs to turn the fiber and seeds into products ranging from paper to biofuels. Dozens of countries already produce the crop.
Kentucky's U.S. senators, Republicans Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, as well as U.S. Reps. John Yarmuth and Thomas Massie are among those pushing legislation in Congress aimed at allowing farmers to grow hemp.
If the federal measures stall, officials plan to seek a federal waiver allowing hemp production to resume in Kentucky, which once was a leading producer of industrial hemp.
One powerful skeptic is Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo. The Prestonsburg Democrat worries a hemp comeback would complicate marijuana eradication efforts in Kentucky. He's also raised doubts about market demand for the crop.
Other hemp opponents include Kentucky State Police, the state's lead law-enforcement agency. Officials there have said marijuana growers could use hemp fields as cover for pot plants. But hemp supporters say marijuana growers would actually avoid hemp fields because cross-pollination would weaken the potency of pot.
The legislation is Senate Bill 50.
Associated Press writer Roger Alford contributed to this report from Frankfort, Ky.