Agriculture Commission James Comer addressed the Kentucky Hemp Commission, meeting for the first time in a decade. (Photos by Tim Thornberry)
By Tim Thornberry
Until Nov. 14, it had been a decade since the Kentucky Hemp Commission had met, but meet they did with a standing room-only crowd of supporters and media at Agriculture Commissioner James Comer’s office.
The commission was originally created by statute in 2001 to monitor a hemp program and make recommendations to the governor. But that legislation did not allow for cultivating the crop, and getting such a bill passed has proven insurmountable so far.
It has been attempted often over the past 10 years. The latest came in 2012 General Assembly session by state Rep. Richard Henderson of Mt. Sterling who was joined by a then newly elected Comer in supporting the initiative.
At that time Comer said Kentucky farmers were missing too many opportunities, and growing hemp was one of them. His opinion has not changed. Last summer in the midst of the state fair, Comer was joined by a host of state lawmakers as well as U.S. Senator Rand Paul, all showing and voicing support for industrial hemp.
Paul has co-sponsored federal legislation that would allow for production, something that has to happen first before any state could legally grow it unless authorized by a permit. Hemp became illegal to grow without that permit from the Drug Enforcement Agency since the passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970.
Comer opened the newly revised commission meeting by saying what a historic day it was in Kentucky.
“This commission is going to meet and do what we’re required by statute to do,” he said. “This is an exciting issue in agriculture and hopefully will impact future farmers for years and years. I sincerely believe industrial hemp can be a viable option for our farmers for many generations to come and I also believe we can create badly needed jobs in the manufacturing sector with this crop.”
Commission members, consisting of a diverse group of state lawmakers, hemp industry experts, those in education and research, law enforcement officers and even representatives in the tobacco industry introduced themselves, many speaking of what they hope to accomplish.
Craig Lee, an original member of the Kentucky Hemp Commission showed other members and guests some of the items that can come from a hemp plant.
Craig Lee, an original member of the group recalled his work with the late former Gov. Louie Nunn who became a huge advocate for the legalization of industrial hemp. He said Nunn once told him to never let the commission die.
Brian Furnish, former manager of the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative and now the head of his own company, the International Tobacco Trading Group, said some of the same equipment used for tobacco could be used for hemp.
Many who support the hemp industry or those utilizing imported hemp products were also on hand to lend information to the gathering.
David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, a $50 million a year company that makes natural soap products and utilizes imported hemp seed oil, said there has been a huge resurgence of the hemp industry throughout the world.
“There has been a global renaissance over the last 10 years and the United States is the largest consumer market for hemp seed and fiber products yet American farmers are being systematically denied,” he said. “In the middle of the greatest recession, we’re continuing to hand the world’s largest market to Canadian farmers and Chinese farmers, and it’s ridiculous.”
Putting his money where his mouth is, Bonner made a $50,000 donation to the commission. Another $50,000 was donated by Sen. Paul’s political action committee. While not on hand at the meeting, the state’s junior senator sent a representative to make the announcement.
Eric Steenstra, president of the nonprofit Vote Hemp, a pro-hemp group, attended the meeting and briefly addressed the committee. He said from a national perspective Kentucky has become one of the top states pushing to get the initiative passed.
“I think it is great because of the long history Kentucky has with industrial hemp,” he said. The state once led the country in hemp production.
Steenstra also said although hemp can’t be grown in the United States, it can be imported so data as it relates to the economics of the crop is available.
“We estimate that just in seed products alone there is about $130 million to $150 million annually of retail sales,” he said.
State Rep. Tom McKee, a farmer from Harrison County who chairs the House Agriculture Committee is serving on the commission. He said even with this new effort there will still be many questions about raising hemp but his committee is open to looking at new crops and new profit potentials for state farmers. He also said that addressing the concerns about the crop with law enforcement officials would be very important.
“I think we have to get law enforcement on board before we are going to be successful,” he said.
Police officials across the state have long voiced concerned about industrial hemp and it’s relationship with marijuana. While being different varieties, both plants are from the same species.
Committee member Major Anthony Terry of the Kentucky State Police said some of the reservations law enforcement has with the growing of hemp is being able to identify who is legally growing the crop and those cultivating marijuana. He also mentioned the work and costs that would be involved when plants had to be tested to determine what is hemp and what is not.
After the meeting, Comer made his way to the Capitol to testify in front of the Interim Joint Committee on Agriculture.
He spoke of the commission and intensions to get legislation introduced during this year’s session that would pave the way for hemp production in Kentucky.
“One of the priority pieces of legislation that I will be pushing as ag commissioner is industrial hemp,” Comer said.
He also noted that in all of the county visits he has made, all of which were attended by respective interim committee members, the question of industrial hemp always comes up.
“You’ve seen firsthand the support that is out there for this crop. The more that people research this the more they ask, why we aren’t doing this in Kentucky,” Comer said.
With a short legislative session just around the corner, the commission will meet again before the end of the year in hopes of getting together a piece of legislation for the General Assembly to consider.
You might also be interested in reading Hemp used to make hundreds of products yet restrictions make production prohibitive and Rand Paul PAC, David Bronner give $100,000 to Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission.