Kentucky hemp bill passes in final hour
FRANKFORT, KY. — An amended bill to regulate industrial hemp production by Kentucky farmers — if the federal government allows it — was passed by the Kentuckly legislature in the final minutes of the regular session.
In the compromise, the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission remains in the state Department of Agriculture with only research functions of the bill assigned to the University of Kentucky. The last sticking point had been an effort by House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, to put the commission under UK.
That had been a dealbreaker for the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, and its chief advocate, state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.
Comer had already left the Capitol believing the bill was dead, but returned late Tuesday when Adkins wanted to continue talks.
“We’re very satisfied with the bill,” Comer said, adding that the next step would be working with Kentucky’s federal legislators to get a waiver for a pilot project to grow industrial hemp in Kentucky. He said public pressure to pass the bill helped achieve the last-minute deal.
The bill passed the House as amended 88-4, with Comer, a former House member, watching on the chamber floor. The Senate approved the compromise 35-1.
The bill now goes to Gov. Steve Beshear, who has said he shares the concerns of the Kentucky State Police who opposed the bill. Beshear hasn’t said whether he would veto a hemp bill if it got to him.
Hornback and Comer, who made the bill his department’s top legislative priority, say hemp can be a boost for farmers and bring processing jobs if Kentucky is among the first states to grow hemp. The federal government would have to legalize the crop or grant Kentucky a waiver.
But the state police and some House Democratic leaders, including Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, questioned whether hemp would be economically viable and whether it would hurt marijuana enforcement since the plants look the same.
Comer said he agreed in the compromise to be removed as chairman of the hemp commission. He will now be vice chairman and the chairman will be selected by members.
Throughout the day Tuesday, both sides had said they were close to an agreement. Hornback said there was agreement to have the state hemp commission issue licenses and the state police conduct criminal background checks on applicants.
But the final issue of whether the hemp commission would be part of the state agriculture department, the University of Kentucky or somehow split between the two nearly proved insurmountable.
Hornback preferred having all functions tied to the agriculture department.
Late in the process, Stumbo said in an interview that the hemp commission has “no business” being in the agriculture department. Asked whether that killed SB50, Stumbo said negotiations were being handled by Adkins.
Federal law classifies hemp alongside marijuana even though it typically contains less than 0.3 percent THC — the intoxicating ingredient in marijuana.
Marijuana’s THC content is between 3 percent and 15 percent.
U.S. Sens. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell have proposed federal legislation that would distinguish hemp from marijuana. Federal lawmakers also said they would seek a waiver for Kentucky if the reclassification effort fails.