|Spotlight on Sustainability|
Kentucky farmers could soon once again lead the nation with a crop steeped in tradition: hemp.
With the support of Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, Kentucky lawmakers filed a bill on Thursday to put Comer at the head of the long-dormant Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission and renew a drive to bring the crop back, reports Janet Patton at the Herald-Leader.
Twelve Kentucky House members — including a former speaker — signed on to support the bill to promote industrial hemp production in the state, reports Gregory A. Hall at the Courier-Journal.
Hemp — also known as cannabis sativa — is one of the world’s oldest cultivated plants, but it was consigned to outlaw status when marijuana prohibition was implemented in 1937, even though hemp strains of cannabis have almost no THC, the principal ingredient that gives users a high.
Comer said that if House Bill 286 is approved by the Kentucky General Assembly, he will petition federal authorities for a permit for Kentucky to grow hemp. The state Department of Agriculture would regulate hemp cultivation permits, at least in the beginning, according to Comer.
The bill makes local sheriff’s departments responsible for monitoring and randomly testing fields to see that THC-rich marijuana isn’t being grown.
”It’s symbolic,” Comer said. “But this will send a message to Washington that we’re serious about this in Kentucky.”
State Senator Joey Pendleton (D-Hopkinsville), who has long supported the legalization of industrial hemp, joined Reps. Richard Henderson (D-Jeffersonville); Keith Hall (D-Phelps); and Ryan Quarles (R-Georgetown) in announcing the legislation Thursday.
The University of Kentucky had sought a hemp cultivation permit several years ago, but the federal Drug Enforcement Administration wouldn’t give them one, Pendleton said. Now, he said, the feds might be more ready to listen (don’t hold your breath, Senator Pendleton). “The time to act is now,” he said.
According to a University of Kentucky College of Agriculture report, federal law technically allows industrial hemp production, but it requires a government permit. Federal regulation and DEA foot-dragging “make hemp production prohibitive, even at the research level,” the report said.
Comer said he has had “positive signals” from several Kentucky representatives in Washington, D.C., and has seen no backlash from Kentuckians or law enforcement regarding his support for hemp. At the federal level, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has filed legislation to lift federal restrictions that keep farmers from growing the crop.
Pendleton and Phelps said they think farmers would line up for permits if the bill is approved. They see a big future for hemp products, including ethanol production, fiber, textiles, food, cosmetics, building materials including “hempcrete” and car parts.
Studies have estimated that hemp production could have a significant economic impact, particularly if processing centers are also built in the state.
“We could talk about the textile mills and the jobs that would be created,” Henderson said. “We could talk about the paper mills and the jobs that would be created. We don’t have any agenda other than we want to diversify our agricultural economy and create jobs.”
Hemp could be a “gold mine,” according to Phelps. He said it would be perfect for mountaintop-removal reclamation projects where it could be grown for fiber or ethanol and would help repair environmental damage.
Comer said help could also replace the income lost in Eastern Kentucky as tobacco production moved west. “There’s a void in many family farms,” he said. “I believe that industrial hemp is a viable option for family farmers in Kentucky.”
Ironically, the death of Kentucky activist icon and political figure Gatewood Galbraith, who campaigned for the legalization of both marijuana and hemp, has given new life to the issue.
“I think it raised awareness of issues that were close to his heart,” said Jonathan Miller, the former secretary of state who recently endorsed marijuana legalization. Miller said he was a late convert to the cause, but that Galbraith helped win him over.
“I realized Gatewood was right,” Miller said. “If his death has helped get the debate started again, I’m sure he’s smiling down on this from above.”