Comer says hemp bill has the votes to pass House; McKee says he wants 'facts' first

02/19/2013 12:02 PM

Agriculture Commissioner James Comer met Tuesday with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom McKee in hopes of easing McKee’s concerns and uncertainty about the bill that would lay the groundwork for a hemp industry in Kentucky.

Comer said an effort to avoid a committee vote or delay the implementation of a regulatory framework for the industry by changing the bill to study the industry are the only obstacles in the way of Senate Bill 50’s passage.

“I think the votes are clearly there in the House Agriculture Committee. And they’re there on the floor too. I believe we have over 60 votes on the floor too,” Comer said, adding that he’s counting those who won’t say their position as “no” votes.

Comer also expressed his frustration that some, including McKee and House Speaker Greg Stumbo, have said they want to see more studies of what kind of economic impact the industry could have. Comer said there’s no downside to laying down the regulatory framework in the event the federal government gives the go ahead to allow the plant to be grown.

“We’re willing to negotiate. But all they want to do is study it,” Comer said. Here’s what he told reporters:

McKee, a Cynthiana Democrat, said his committee will take up Senate Bill 50 at its Feb. 27 meeting but hasn’t yet decided whether to change the bill and call for a study of the economic effects of the hemp industry. Growing hemp has been banned by the federal government since World War II because it is the same type of plant as marijuana.

“We possibly will look at a committee sub. We’ve got some members who have concerns. Nothing is certain at this point — except the hearing,” McKee said. “I want to listen to what we hear on Wednesday, and I think there’s maybe an educational component that can be added to the bill.”

McKee, speaking to reporters after the announcement in the Capitol of a five-year agricultural plan, said he doesn’t want to close the door on any potentially viable plant but wants to see more facts. The University of Kentucky currently is conducting such a study at the request of the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission.

McKee hinted that getting the information to make him feel comfortable might be tough to do before the end of this year’s 30-day session, which hits its halfway mark Wednesday.

“It’s going to be pretty hard probably, but we can work on some of those answers,” he said.

McKee also said the debate has become “polarizing” and specifically cited the difference in cost between testing hemp plants for content of THC, the chemical in marijuana that contains psychedelic properties. The Kentucky State Police has said testing would be costly for the agency, but Comer has said the Department of Agriculture already has the lab infrastructure in place and can do it at minimal cost.

The five-year plan for the agriculture industry, which attracted Comer and McKee and Gov. Steve Beshear among other officials, included a reference to hemp as a crop that could potentially help Kentucky farmers diversify.

Gov. Steve Beshear told reporters Tuesday that he’s still not fully on board even though the agriculture industry is behind the effort to lay the groundwork for the industry.

“Hemp is certainly a possible example of diversification. We’ve got two issues we need to address there. One is a market issue: Is there a market for it? … Then there are law enforcement issues. And we need to solve both of those before we move ahead,” Beshear said.

About Ryan Alessi

Ryan Alessi joined cn|2 in May 2010 as senior managing editor and host of Pure Politics. He is now pursuing an advanced degree in non-fiction writing from Murray State University and is a regular contributor to Pure Politics. Ryan has covered politics for more than 14 years, including seven years as a reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Ryan can be reached at purepolitics@twcable.com or @mycn2 on Twitter.

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