FRANKFORT, KY. — Lawmakers have grown somewhat bolder in their push to allow farmers to grow hemp in Kentucky, a Bible-belt state where the issue was once considered politically taboo.
The House Agriculture and Small Business Committee held a hearing Wednesday on two bills that could put Kentucky in position to grow hemp if a federal restriction is lifted. Neither bill was called for a vote.
Most Kentucky political leaders have dismissed the issue in the past because of fears that voters might somehow conclude that they’re also pro-marijuana. But the issue was a centerpiece in last year’s race for agriculture commissioner, which was won decisively by Republican Jamie Comer, a hemp proponent.
Comer said growing industrial hemp would allow expansion of Kentucky farm markets and create jobs in rural communities.
Industrial hemp, a cousin to marijuana, is used to make fuel, cattle feed, textiles, paper, lotion, cosmetics and other products. Though it contains trace amounts of the mind-altering chemical tetrahydrocannabinol that makes marijuana intoxicating, it remains illegal in the United States.
Ed Shemelya, regional marijuana coordinator in the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, said police continue to oppose legalization of hemp because there’s no way to visually distinguish it from marijuana.
“It’s an enforcement nightmare,” Shemelya said.
Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, said he believes people are beginning to realize the potential economic value of hemp, and that is allowing political leaders to feel more comfortable in promoting it.
Hall said people might think it odd that “a Bible-read man” would speak in favor of allowing Kentucky farmers to grow hemp.
“They’re saying the best Bibles are made with hemp paper over in France, because they don’t yellow; they don’t tear; they don’t tarnish,” he said.
Sen. Joey Pendleton, D-Hopkinsville, said he expects the federal government will lift the ban on hemp production in the future, and that he wants Kentucky to be ready to plant the crop as soon as that happens.
Kentucky has an ideal climate for hemp production and, during World War II, it was a leading grower of the plant that produces strong fibers used in fabrics, ropes and other materials for the military.
Committee Chairman Tom McKee, D-Cynthiana, said the hemp bills won’t be called for a vote this session.
“I think it’s premature,” he said, because of existing federal law that would require the state to obtain a federal permit to grow industrial hemp.
McKee said he might have another hearing if time allows. Kentucky State Police representatives weren’t able to testify Wednesday because the committee ran out of time.