Hemp hearing could produce fireworks Wednesday as House version will remove regulatory framework

02/26/2013 07:28 PM

The House Agriculture Committee will take up a scaled-back version of an industrial hemp bill on Wednesday morning that removes nearly all of the language aimed at regulating and testing the crops.

The committee substitute is being pushed by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom McKee, D-Cynthiana. And it will set up a legislative skirmish between the chairman and supporters of the Senate version that includes Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who will testify on the legislation Wednesday.

The committee substitute to Senate Bill 50 will call for the University of Kentucky’s Agricultural Experiment Station to conduct an economic impact study to find out how much of a market there will be for the crop. That’s on top of a similar study UK has begun at the direction of the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission, of which McKee is a member.

McKee’s version also calls for using $100,000 from the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Program Fund — the entire operating budget of the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission — to pay for the new study.

The substitute proposal, which McKee provided to Pure Politics, already isn’t sitting well with the main proponent of the bill, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.

“It’s a study on top of a study, which is really ridiculous,” Comer said in a statement through his chief of staff. “It’s an unfunded mandate for more study by another government agency.”

Comer and McKee spoke by phone about it shortly before 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Comer is expected to testify at the 8 a.m. hearing along with the original bill’s sponsor, Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, and Democratic Sen. Robin Webb of Grayson.

This sets up a political showdown of sorts between Comer and McKee — and by extension House leaders who have been skeptical of Senate’s version of the hemp bill. House members on Comer’s side can block the committee substitute. It would need at least 15 votes on the 28-member committee to be adopted. Along political lines alone, there are 13 Republicans.

McKee said the intent is not to water down efforts to legalize industrial hemp. He noted that the proposed committee substitute calls on the federal government to legalize the crop. But he said an existing statute — passed in 2001 — is all Kentucky needs in the event that the federal government gives the go-ahead to grow the crop. That statute, KRS 260.865, consists of one sentence:

Kentucky shall adopt the federal rules and regulations that are currently enacted regarding industrial hemp and any subsequent changes thereto.

McKee said the rest of the framework for monitoring hemp growers can be enacted through administrative regulations. The Senate version would have put into law that how hemp growers would be licensed and their fields checked by agriculture officials and police to make sure marijuana, another form of cannabis, wasn’t being grown.

“Our committee is supportive of industrial hemp,” McKee told Pure Politics Tuesday night. “We just want to make sure some questions are answered.”

McKee also prepared a memo for committee members that outlines the tenets of the bill. Also among them:

- Once the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration allows hemp growing permits, the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station would be required to get a permit to grow hemp on “demonstration fields” of at least five acres.

- Requires the economic study to be submitted to the Interim Joint Committee on Agriculture by Nov. 29, 2013 and a final report by Jan. 7, 2014.

- “Encourages the president, Congress and Kentucky’s congressional delegation to amend the federal Controlled Substances Act to exclude industrial hemp at a standard of 0.3 percent THC content.”

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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