By Kevin Wheatley, State-Journal
Industrial hemp could make a comeback as one of Kentucky’s top cash crops if lawmakers legalize the harvest of marijuana’s botanical cousin, legislators have told a House committee.
The Agricultural and Small Business Committee on Wednesday heard from key sponsors of two pieces of legislation –House bills 272 and 286 – that would make hemp a legal crop if the federal government lifts restrictions on it.
The bills didn’t come to a vote, but Rep. Tom McKee, a Cynthiana Democrat and the committee’s chairman, said the discussion would continue so both sides of the argument could be heard.
Sponsors spoke for about 30 minutes, highlighting primarily the many legal products produced by industrial hemp, such as textiles, paper, auto plastics, rope, construction material, cosmetics and feed for cattle.
The trickle-down effect would create 17,000 jobs and result in an economic impact between $400 million and $500 million, said Sen. Joey Pendleton, D-Hopkinsville, quoting a University of Kentucky survey from years ago.
“We’re sitting on the cutting edge and, to me, on a gold mine here of what we can do in the Commonwealth of Kentucky to create jobs and to give our agriculture people another opportunity to grow something,” he said.
Eighty-five percent of industrial hemp produced in Canada is shipped to the U.S., and China sends a large amount here as well, Pendleton added.
He also noted that Kentucky has an ideal climate and was a top hemp producer prior to and during World War II until the federal government banned it amid political pressure from nylon and paper manufacturers in the 1950s.
While there’s concern that hemp would be confused with marijuana, Pendleton said the two plants can be distinguished easily and cross-pollination between the two plants decreases tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana.
However, Ed Shemelya, regional marijuana coordinator in the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, disagreed and 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 after the meeting.
Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, said hemp oil could be explored as an alternative fuel source. He noted that Henry Ford built his first automobile using hemp products and ran it on hemp diesel fuel.
Bio-diesel fuel produced from hemp emits no sulfur when it’s used, making it the only fuel that passes the Environment Protection Agency’s Clear Air Act, Hall said.
Hemp plants could also be used on mine reclamation sites as they soak up contaminants, he said.
Legislators have been hesitant to consider legalizing hemp with its link to marijuana, but Hall said the potential economic impact has thawed some, but not all, concerns.
“I would say today that the issue is fear,” Hall told the panel.
Rep. Terry Mills, D-Lebanon, said 66 percent of his constituents support legalizing industrial hemp.
“… The ag economy is the best its been in 40 years, and we’re seeing that in grain and cattle prices, but we always need diversity in agriculture,” Mills said.
“If this can be developed as a viable crop in agriculture, it can only help the agriculture community and, again, those people who live out in rural Kentucky.”
It’s unclear how much support the bills have on the House committee, but two members –Rep. Fred Nesler, D-Mayfield, and Rep. Johnny Bell, D-Glasgow –commended sponsors for speaking about the issue.
“I look forward to future discussion,” Nesler said. “I hope we don’t just drag this issue like sometimes we do. This is an issue that almost seems too sensible.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.