Kentucky’s debate to Industrialize Hemp on KET’s Kentucky Tonight

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Kentucky Agricultural Commissioner James Comer announced on KET’s Kentucky Tonight  “On February 11, when I testify with Senator Hornback for this bill, we’re going to have Senator Rand Paul, Congressman [John] Yarmuth and Congressman Massey all there testifying in favor of this bill [Senate Bill 50]. I’ve been there 13 years, and I’ve never seen three congressmen testify on the same bill, and of different parties. Today we learned former CIA director James Woolsey will be flying in to testify on behalf of this bill.

Commissioner Comer

Congressman Yarmuth and Sen. Rand Paul at Centre VP debate in Danville. -Ace Photo

He was CIA director under President Bill Clinton. He’s served under Republican presidents and democratic presidents. He’s an energy expert and he’s a member of the North American Industrial Hemp Council. Hopefully, we can pass Senate Bill 50 and create some jobs and help some farmers.”

Comer, a Republican, has made a full media press in support of industrial hemp in Kentucky, which cannot currently be legally grown in the U.S.  Tonight, he was interviewed by KET’s Bill Goodman, on a panel that included former Kentucky State Treasurer Jonathan Miller, Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer, and Dan Smoot, vice president of Operation UNITE.

Senate Bill 50, proposed by senator Paul Hornback (Republican, Shelbyville), doesn’t legalize hemp. It establishes the framework for a regulatory agency (the Kentucky Department of Agriculture) to regulate this crop, if and when the federal government allows the growing of industrial hemp in the U.S.  Key provisions: any grower would have to pass a criminal background check. Growers would have to submit GPS coordinates of their hemp fields. Growers would have to agree to inspections and grow a minimum of ten acres.

Comer says industrial hemp grows well in Kentucky (it was prevalent in Kentucky in the 1900s), and it “has a growing demand…. It’s a green crop,” adding “we’re at a crossroads in Kentucky agriculture.”

The Security Trust Safety Vault Company was located at the corner of Short and Mill in Lexington. At this time, W.R. Milward Mortuary was located next door to the vault. Across the street was the office of W.J. Loughridge, the largest hemp dealer in Fayette County. (Ace archives)

Jonathan Miller, citing his background as a Henry Clay high school graduate, and a childhood growing up on land that was once part of Henry Clay’s estate, reminded viewers that industrial hemp was Henry Clay’s key crop, but he was most excited about the environmental possibilities. “We’re facing some real issues here in terms of developing energy and developing clean energy.”

“Instead of trying to find examples of other places to follow, I’d love to see Kentucky take the lead. We need to be first in something we can be really proud of.”

Not everyone on the panel agreed with Comer and Miller.

Commissioner Brewer says he agrees with Comer that hemp and marijuana grow well in Kentucky. He says the problem is “you cannot distinguish between hemp and marijuana with the naked eye. You’ll hear a lot of proponents say that you can…but you cannot tell the difference.” He asks what would keep an enterprising or unscrupulous farmer from adding a few marijuana plants to the interior of a hemp tract, “when the going rate for marijuana is about $2300/lb,” adding that “the research has not been done to show [hemp's] a viable product in Kentucky yet.”

Smoot, of Operation Unite, refers to UK’s 1998 study “concluding there was no market for hemp.” He says the market’s only declined since. He says, “The United States Department of Agriculture says ‘thin market at best, novelty item.’”

SB50 requires that the seeds that the certified growers use will have only trace amounts of THC. It’s an agricultural crop, with no narcotic value.

Comer says he appreciates the concerns of the law enforcement panelists, but that “there is a concern in Kentucky to create jobs. This is an opportunity.”

Brewer says “marijuana and hemp are not first cousins, they are twin brothers.” He adds, “you can get high off of hemp.” [If they are brothers, however, they are Cain and Abel — destroying each other every chance they get. “Hemp and marijuana, both members of the cannabis family, aggressively cross-pollinate with undesirable results for both. Interbreeding marijuana valued for high THC content with low-THC hemp dramatically lowers THC content and thus economic value of smoked marijuana. Likewise, lanky hemp plants grown for the fiber in their stems would lose those desired characteristics if interbred with bushy pot plants.” Ace 2000 archive.]

Miller says, this debate makes it “so compelling why we need Senate Bill 50. It’s not legalizing hemp. It says IF hemp is legalized at the federal level,” this establishes a strong regulatory framework around it.

He spoke of “empowering” the farmers with “new opportunities,” particularly as tobacco has faded from the economic landscape.

The program accepted an incoming call from a Hardin County caller who identified himself as “Pete Countryman,” who said, “marijuana eradication is the big business here in Kentucky. I’m confident that the law enforcement agencies benefit financially through the government funding for additional staff, equipment, seminars, and they attend expositions and conventions. When the production of industrial hemp would harm marijuana on its own. I’ve seen Commissioner Comer throughout the Commonwealth, how he talks about the cross-pollination process, and how the growth of hemp would actually harm marijuana. To be honest with you, for you gentlemen on Operation Unite and for the state police, when you have three Kentuckians die each day of prescription drug abuse, I think you gentlemen have better things to do.”

Host Bill Goodman then read an email from James Higdon, author of Cornbread Mafia:

“In reporting my book, I found that many illegal pot farmers were against the idea of reviving Kentucky’s hemp industry out of fear of what the increase in hemp pollen would do to the value of their crops. Why is it that Operation Unite and the Kentucky State Police agree with criminal marijuana growers that hemp is a bad idea?”

Smoot responded, first to the caller:

“I will guarantee you that those people that died of the pill overdoses, their first experience with illegal drugs was marijuana. “

He then suggested that anyone growing industrialized hemp should be prepared to hire armed guards.

Smoot countered, “If you take our whole federal delegation from Kentucky to DC, combined, I don’t think they have put a fraction of the time and effort into the drug crisis in Kentucky and this nation as Congressman Hal Rogers…He has made battling drugs a priority.”

Goodman adds, “he is one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress because he is chair of the appropriations and revenue committee.”

Comer says he respects Rogers’ point of view, but stresses “when Senate Bill 50 passes, that still doesn’t legalize industrial hemp in Kentucky. It just sets up the framework for how it will be regulated in Kentucky,” referring to the arguments against the bill as “shallow,” saying “it’s ok to be bold.”

Miller says, “we don’t claim this is a magic crop or panacea. It’s not gonna solve all of Kentucky’s problems.” But he referenced UK’s 1998 survey (before new applications for hemp were developed) identifying one processing plant as capable of generating 300 new jobs and $6.7 million of revenue.

Commissioner Brewer says law enforcement will have to prepare for “The Hemp Defense.”

“Everybody we stop from now on that has a bag of marijuana is going to say ‘that’s not marijuana, that’s hemp.’”

He estimates the testing that necessitates will cost the state about $1.75 million the first year.

Goodman asks,

“can it be tested in the field? It can’t be tested when someone is pulled over for a nickel bag? Can it be tested in a growing field? It has to be taken to a laboratory?”

Miller says, “if someone is pulled over for a nickel bag and says it’s hemp, the immediate response should be to arrest them for marijuana possession.”

Commissioner Brewer says, “oh we will,” citing the arrest of Dr. Bronner last summer for growing hemp.

 

All the panelists said they are prepared for February 11. Stay tuned.

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