Hemp debate has yielded fierce policy debates and curious political subplots

02/04/2013 05:41 PM

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of three overview articles on the debate over industrial hemp in Kentucky. Part 1 focused on the law enforcement issues and Part 2 focused on the biological issues between hemp and marijuana.

As the debate over industrial hemp has ratcheted up in recent weeks, it woven together a web of political and policy subplots.

The debate has pitted a desire for new jobs and industries against millions in federal enforcement dollars. It has created unusual political alliances and underscored future aspirations. And it has potentially complicated an already unpredictable General Assembly session.

Lawmakers return to Frankfort on Tuesday. And Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, a Republican and former state representative, has made the set-up of an industrial hemp industry in Kentucky his main priority in 2013. The federal government currently bans the growth of industrial hemp, with just a few select exemptions.

And Comer is pushing for legislation that would set up a regulatory framework in Kentucky in the event the federal government gives the green light.

A pathway through Frankfort?

Senate Bill 50, the legislation which sets up the regulations for the state to monitor hemp production, seems to have a clear pathway to reach the Senate floor. S.B. 50 has been assigned to the Agriculture Committee, and the chairman of that committee is the bill’s sponsor — Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville.

If the bill can clear Hornback’s committee, it will likely be called for a full vote on the Senate floor by the co-sponsor of the bill Majority Floor Leader Sen. Damon Thayer of Georgetown.

James Hidgon, a member of the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission, said Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a former attorney general, will be the key to whether law enforcement agencies — which have expressed reservations about the proposal will block the bill.

“Stumbo could make or break it — it would appear,” said Higdon, the son of Republican Sen. Jimmy Higdon of Lebanon and author of the book “Cornbread Mafia.”

“Obviously, there’s opposition from the law enforcement community — from the state police — and they seem to be putting a lot of pressure on leadership in both chambers regarding committee placement. So it remains to be seen what committees these bills end up in,” Higdon said.

On Friday, Stumbo told WKYT’s Bill Bryant , that he wants to wait and see an economic impact study that the Kentucky Hemp Commission requested from the University of Kentucky. It’s expected to be finished in the summer.

“Everybody is saying, ‘Well this is going to be a great thing for Kentucky farmers,’ but nobody has produced any evidence that would verify that,” Stumbo told Bryant.

That puts the future of the bill in doubt.

Meanwhile, law enforcement representatives and the Kentucky State Police have expressed their concerns with the proposed legislation. Last week KSP Commissioner Rodney Brewer said that he met with members of Senate leadership, but had not personally talked with Stumbo.

“I know that some folks within the narcotics world, the legitimate narcotics world, have spoken to him about their concerns in law enforcement …,” Brewer said.

Brewer went on to say his agency has a great working relationship with the House and Senate and that he would talk to legislators about his concerns, but that he would not lobby for votes against hemp legislation.

“I don’t go behind the scenes making midnight calls to legislators. Obviously if I see them in the hallway or they contact me and we talk about it – certainly. But I don’t make it a practice to target them and try to sway their vote or whatever,” Brewer said. “Hopefully just the good information will be enough to sway their vote – if need be.”

Unusual allies

Last week, Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell became the latest high-profile Kentucky official to publicly endorse industrial hemp. He credited Comer and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul for convincing him that the industry could “be an economic boon for Kentucky” as hemp could be used to make textiles, fuel and plastics.

“We’re going to do everything we can to bring industrial hemp to Kentucky (and) give us a new cash crop,” McConnell said Friday night at a Republican dinner.

The hemp issue is one that could gain McConnell favor with tea party groups in Kentucky, many of whom endorsed the concept — and candidates who agreed with them on it — during the 2011 and 2012 elections.

It also puts McConnell on the same side of the issue as Paul and Democratic U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville. Yarmuth vowed to talk to President Barack Obama about a federal waiver if regulations are put in place by the legislature this spring.

Paul, who first raised the prospect of a federal waiver said he too would call on the Obama administration to act if Kentucky’s legislature approves a bill. Paul is co-sponsoring a bill to legalize hemp in the Senate.

And Republican U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie of Lewis County is expected to file the 2013 House version of a bill that would make hemp legal across the country. His fellow freshman, U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, is also in favor of industrial hemp.

“I am impressed by the promise industrial hemp offers for economic development and job creation in Kentucky and I understand the practical concerns of law enforcement. I remain open to a solution that addresses those concerns in a realistic and cost-effective manner,” Barr said in a statement to Pure Politics.

On the other side of the issue is U.S. Rep Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, who voiced his opposition to the legislation around the same time as McConnell jumped in to support the crop.

“I have yet to be convinced Kentucky needs a pathway for industrial hemp. My first concern is the challenge facing our thinly stretched marijuana eradication teams and law enforcement in visually distinguishing the two plants. This confusion and potential co-mingling lends itself to an easier path for illegal marijuana growth in the Commonwealth,” Rogers said in a statement to Pure Politics on Thursday.

Rogers statements mirror those of Dan Smoot, the Vice President of Operation UNITE. – an anti-drug organization in Roger’s district. Rogers helped found Operation UNITE in April of 2003 in response to rising prescription drug abuse in Kentucky. Since the agency’s inception, millions of dollars in federal grants have poured into the organization.

The remaining members of Kentucky’s congressional delegation — Republican U.S. Reps. Ed Whitfield and Brett Guthrie — have remained quiet.

Guthrie told Pure Politics on Friday night, after the Spencer County Lincoln Day Dinner that he wants to wait to take a position on hemp until UK study on the economic effects is completed.

“If it turns out it is good for our farmers, we’ll figure out a way to make it work. Then we would have to sit down with law enforcement,” Guthrie said.

Gubernatorial ambitions

And that’s where the hemp debate has, in some ways, touched some internal Republican politics.

Comer’s strong push for the issue has essentially tied him to its fate.

And Comer is often mentioned as a potential Republican candidate for governor in 2015 after Gov. Steve Beshear’s second term expires. He would have to choose whether to run for that or seek a second term as ag commissioner.

Guthrie, of Bowling Green, is the other frequently-named potential contender for the GOP nomination even though he’s publicly said he’s not interested at the moment.

That already has some Republicans concerned that legalizing hemp might attract opposition for the wrong reasons.

At the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce dinner in early January, House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover, R- Jamestown, made a pitch for having “an open debate” on legalizing industrial hemp.

“We should not let petty political jealousies and gubernatorial ambitions keep us from debating this issue,” he said.

Hoover told Pure Politics, after his speech, he wasn’t aware of anyone specifically opposed to the issue for personal political reasons. But he said he didn’t want to see the issue shelved “just because James Comer is a young Republican” on the rise.

“It’s an important issue that needs to be debated on its own merits,” Hoover said.


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