Hemp bill shelved for now; Proponents suspect politics, which chairman denies

02/27/2013 12:16 PM

UPDATED 3:01 — The House Agriculture Committee chairman thrust into legislative limbo Wednesday afternoon the bill aimed at laying the groundwork for an industrial hemp industry.

Rep. Tom McKee, D-Cynthia and the panel’s chairman, had said at the end of a morning meeting devoted to the bill that he planned to continue debate and potentially take a vote on the measure Wednesday afternoon. But McKee convened the committee while the full House was in recess so that the committee could officially adjourn.

McKee made it clear Wednesday morning that he wants to avoid the panel voting on hemp bill, Senate Bill 50, as originally written. Instead, McKee has proposed a committee substitute that takes out the heart of the original measure — the regulatory structure for licensing growers and testing to make sure the cannabis crop being grown isn’t marijuana.

The committee took testimony from law enforcement officials who are dubious of the measure as well as proponents, including Agriculture Commissioner James Comer. After two hours, the clock ran out on the committee and McKee scuffled efforts by Republicans to pass the original version of Senate Bill 50.

Proponents say they’re still hopeful the original Senate Bill 50 will come up for a vote. But that will largely be in McKee’s hands, who has a lot of latitude as a committee chairman. And any bill needs at least 15 votes to pass the 28-member Ag Committee.

He told reporters that his goal is still to see the committee substitute that calls for further study of the hemp industry instead of the original version. Here’s a condensed version of the press gaggle with McKee:

Comer, a Republican, was joined in support of the bill by Democratic Sen. Robin Webb of Grayson and Republican Sen. Paul Hornback of Shelbyville, as well John Roulac, founder of California-based health food company Nutiva.

They held an impromptu press conference in which Comer said he’s confident Senate Bill 50 would have “near unanimous” support if McKee would allow a vote on it and would have broad support on the House floor.

Comer also said he didn’t suspect politics because several high-profile Democrats, including Webb, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville and former state Treasurer Jonathan Miller are publicly supporting it.

But several Republicans, including Hornback and Rep. Jim DeCesare of Rockfield, said they sensed politics at the heart of the dispute and insinuated that House Democratic leaders are opposed. Here are highlights of their reactions:

During the hearing, Kentucky State Police Maj. Tony Terry told the committee that law enforcement is mostly concerned about the difficulty in rooting out marijuana from hemp fields. He said that a potential loss of federal grant money for marijuana eradication efforts had nothing to do with their opposition.

McKee has said he is concerned that there’s not a market for hemp.

Roulac, the health food company CEO, said the industry “is not going to create 10,000 jobs” but will have plenty of demand. His company imports hemp from Canada to make its shelled hemp seeds, hemp oil and protein mix. Some of the products are now being sold at Costco and GNC.

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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