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By Scott Wartman
The Kentucky Enquirer
Politicians on both sides of the aisle can envision fields of hemp growing among the tobacco and corn fields of Kentucky.
Many cite a flagging economy, social media and the advocacy of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul as reasons why they think the legalization of industrial hemp is closer than ever.
Sen. Paul, R-Ky., and Agriculture Commissioner Jamie Comer promoted efforts to legalize hemp at the Kentucky State Fair in August.
Both the Democratic and Republican candidates for Congress in the 4th District support legalizing industrial hemp and have endorsements from different organizations devoted to the cause.
Federal law, however, considers hemp and marijuana the same and bans commercial growing.
Hemp can make rope, cloth, fuel, plastics and a myriad of other products, Comer said. Kentucky’s history as a hemp-growing hub in the 19th Century has proponents predicting a hemp industry that could employ tens of thousands in the Commonwealth. Farmers, however, remain skeptical of how big a market hemp would have in the United States since there hasn’t been one in more than 50 years.
Law enforcement’s historical resistance toward industrial hemp and its association with marijuana have kept industrial hemp from being produced in the U.S., unlike in Canada, Europe and Asia where hemp remains a major crop, said Tom Murphy, national outreach coordinator with Vote Hemp.
Both industrial hemp and marijuana come from the same plant species -- Cannabis sativa -- but are different varieties. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency considers both industrial hemp and and marijuana a Schedule I controlled substance. Some farmers in North Dakota have been issued licenses for industrial hemp but don’t grow it because the DEA won’t allow them. The last industrial hemp farm in the United States closed in 1957 in Wisconsin.
Industrial hemp has a negligible content of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) -- the substance in marijuana that gives users a high -- hemp advocates say. Industrial hemp has a THC level lower than 1 percent, while marijuana varieties have between 3 and 15 percent THC levels, according to a report published in 2009 by the Crop Diversification and Biofuels Research Center with the University of Kentucky.
Industrial hemp also can’t be used to hide marijuana since the two plants cross pollinate and would dilute the THC content in the marijuana plant, rendering it worthless for recreational drug use, advocates say.
“It is a manufactured controversy,” Murphy said. “The biggest obstacle is the DEA, and authorities steadfastly refuse to see the difference in varieties.”
But Barbara Carreno, spokeswoman for the DEA, said the agency can’t make an exception for hemp because the Controlled Substances Act doesn’t distinguish between the varieties.
“In the executive branch, we enforce it as it’s written, and Congress has to change the law,” Carreno said.
An uncertain market
Many farmers support legalizing industrial hemp but aren’t certain they would grow it.
New crops touted as potential gold mines to farmers have come and gone, said Hampton “Hoppy” Henton, a farmer from Versailles, Ky., outside Lexington. Jerusalem artichokes and other crops have been pitched to farmers as crops that could get them through the lean years. Henton hasn’t shied away from alternative crops and raises freshwater prawns on his farm that grows tobacco, corn, soybeans and cattle.
Henton and other farmers don’t oppose legalizing industrial hemp but would need guarantees that someone would buy the product over an extended period of time before deciding to grow it themselves.
“I want a contract,” Henton said. “I want someone to say they’ll buy it from me. I’ve got to have someone agree to buy it from me over time. I don’t want to grow it and then in five years I don’t know how to get rid of it. We have raised freshwater prawns, and we continue to do it because we’ve found a reliable market for it. We know it works.”
Useful for many products
Proponents believe the hemp market will grow if the government lifts restrictions. Manufacturers from all over the country have written to the agriculture commissioner saying they would locate in Kentucky and contract with farmers to grow hemp if it becomes legal, Comer said. One potential manufacturer would make car dashboards out of hemp, Comer said. He estimates hemp could create 25,000 jobs in Kentucky based on a study from UK in the 1990s.
“I’m confident if we legalize it, it will create multiple industries,” Comer said. “I hope they are located in rural communities where they can purchase the hemp from the farmers. I will not encourage one farmer to grow industrial hemp unless we have the market.”
Before the state can act, however, the federal restriction on growing hemp must be lifted. Paul has co-sponsored a bill in the U.S. Senate that would take industrial hemp out of the control of the DEA and treat it as an agriculture crop.
Four states (North Dakota, Vermont, Oregon and Maine) have laws in place that would either license hemp growers or allow for easy legalization of hemp if Congress lifts the restriction, according to Vote Hemp, a non-profit advocacy organization for industrial hemp.
Six other states also have passed legislation that would remove barriers for the production or research of hemp.
Hemp advocates have eroded some opposition.
Comer wants Kentucky to be one of the states pushing Congress to lift the federal ban on industrial hemp. He has said he would jumpstart the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission, which has lain dormant since its creation by the General Assembly in 2001. The commission only met once but ran into resistance, Comer said. It will reconvene and gather research to take to Congress, he said.
“It is going to highlight companies interested in coming to Kentucky,” Comer said. “We will put together an economic impact summary that will show how many jobs and the opportunities to grow this crop. We can demonstrate to Washington, D.C., ahead of other states that we want to make this happen.”
Some law enforcement organizations appear to have changed their attitude toward industrial hemp. Concern over medical marijuana has taken a front seat in many law enforcement groups, said Mike Bischoff, executive director of the Kentucky Police Chiefs Association. Many of the concerns regarding industrial hemp have been allayed, he said.
“We’re more concerned about medicinal marijuana,” Bischoff said. “I think what we’re finding is that if they try to use hemp, it is really not exactly what you would call marijuana. It dilutes it. It would actually produce an inferior drug.”
Many in Kentucky have become involved in the industrial hemp cause through the efforts of Ron and Rand Paul. That’s how Katie Moyer of Hopkinsville entered the industrial hemp movement in 2008. The loyal following aroused by the Pauls has helped push industrial hemp to the forefront, said Moyer, chairwoman of the Kentucky Hemp Coalition.
“When the Ron Paul movement took off, it got a lot of us young people involved,” Moyer said. “It is not just that I want to see Kentucky farmers making money again. I also see industrial hemp as a product or crop that will benefit anybody. Costs will go down because of making biofuels from hemp. Clothing will be cheaper and more durable. It is something with so many different uses for it.”
Lawmakers hopeful but some are wary.
For six years, state Sen. Joey Pendleton, D-Hopkinsville, has introduced legislation that would allow the state to issue licenses to grow industrial hemp. He believes enough people from both parties and both houses can pass it next session.
“I’m more optimistic than ever,” Pendleton said. “What a lot of federal legislators keep telling me is that we need to pass it in the states to put pressure on the federal people. I’m seeing more support in the U.S. Senate.”
Some political leaders, however, don’t see a point until the federal government lifts the ban.
“There are two or three things it has got to overcome,” said State Rep. Tom McKee, D-Cynthiana, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. “First, it is a federal issue. Second, we need to know what’s the profit potential. The third thing is that we have to make sure our law enforcement is on board. Until we answer those three things, I think it’s going to be far off in the future.”
Fourth District Congressional candidates weigh in
Both candidates for Kentucky’s Fourth Congressional District support industrial hemp. The Kentucky Hemp Initiative endorsed Democrat Bill Adkins. The Kentucky Hemp Coalition endorsed Republican Thomas Massie.
Republican Thomas Massie, who is a farmer in Lewis County, said he thinks Congress is close to lifting the federal ban and hopes it can provide an alternative to tobacco.
“My farm is a tobacco farm, and we’ve not found anything to replace that,” Massie said. “My wife grew up on the farm, and they raised cattle and tobacco. Tobacco is really what they made money off of, and now tobacco has gone by the wayside.”
Democrat Bill Adkins also said it would be a priority of his if elected to Congress.
“Kentucky farmers need a new cash crop,” Adkins said. “Tobacco is diminishing as a cash crop, and hemp has so many uses.
--Kentucky Press News Service