Law enforcement stirs the pot with concerns that hemp could undermine marijuana eradication

01/31/2013 08:08 PM

_Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three-part series on the debate over legalizing industrial hemp in Kentucky. _

Kentucky’s top cop said he opposes measures to allow hemp growing in Kentucky because of the prospect that it would jeopardize federal funding for marijuana eradication, would make aerial surveillance for marijuana more challenging and increase agencies’ regulatory responsibilities.

In his first extensive interview on the hemp issue, Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer laid out why law enforcement has emerged as the most prominent opponents to hemp legislation that has been steadily picking up support in Frankfort and Washington .

Advocates, led by state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, say that products that can be created from hemp — such as textiles, plastics and fuels — will bring big business to Kentucky. And business groups, such as the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, have endorsed legislation in the 2013 General Assembly to create the regulatory framework for a hemp industry in Kentucky if the federal government lifts its long-standing ban on the plant.

Hemp is a form of the cannabis plant and shares the botanical classification and common traits with the Schedule I drug marijuana. Both types of cannabis contain the chemical THC, the psychoactive ingredient present in marijuana, but it’s much lower in hemp.

Brewer, who has led the state police for the last five years, said the mere presence of THC in hemp is enough to cause concern.

“The only way to discern between hemp and marijuana is through laboratory testing,” Brewer said. Here’s the first part of the interview:

Know your weed

Advocates insist that through careful breeding, hemp would look different than marijuana because growers bring out traits that would lead to better fibers.

And there are typically big differences in how marijuana and hemp are planted. Marijuana growers prefer to grow shorter, bushy plants with more leaves and buds. Therefore, they space their plants further apart. Hemp farmers cultivate tall plants with longer stalks, and thus grow them very closely together.

“There are distinct differences depending upon how you grow the product,” Brewer acknowledged. “The reason you grow the product different is just like any other agricultural product is because of the end result you want…”

Brewer went on to say that through a simple extraction method, hemp oil could be used for recreational drug use, but it would take more of the product to create a “high.”

“Yes it is possible, now is that a distinct a high? Do you have to smoke more, consume more? Obviously because the THC level is much lower,” Brewer went on to say.

And because law enforcement agencies search for illegal marijuana patches in rural areas by helicopter, Brewer said similarities between hemp and marijuana would make aerial surveillance even more difficult.

“If we walk through a field or fly over a field of hemp you can not distinguish with the naked eye between a marijuana plant or hemp plant,” Brewer said.

Green for green?

State law enforcement agencies pay for much of that surveillance and marijuana eradication efforts through federal enforcement grants.

In 2012, the Kentucky State Police, for instance, received three major grants from federal sources for marijuana eradication. The grants totaled $3.45 million, according to data Pure Politics received through an open records request.

Here is where the money comes from:

  • JAG – Which is a Justice Assistance Grant from the US Department of Justice gave $99,800.
  • The DEA contributed $1.25 million for eradication efforts, including almost $900,000 for aircraft rentals and $235,000 for overtime.

But those grants to the state police are only a portion of the total federal funding for marijuana eradication in Kentucky.

The Governor’s Marijuana Strike Force is an umbrella group for several state and federal agencies that work together on eradication efforts. Together the group discovered and eradicated 441,062 marijuana plants in 2012.

The task force is headed by the Kentucky State Police, and troopers work in conjunction with Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, the U.S. Marshals Service, the DEA, Forest Service, and the Kentucky National Guard, which all rely on federal funds as well.

Lt. Col. Bryan Howay of the Kentucky National Guard told Pure Politics in 2012 the guard spent nearly $5 million on eradication in Kentucky. It was mainly spent on aviation fuel and other resources, he said.

And that money could be in jeopardy if Kentucky’s government essentially endorses an industry the federal government still considers to be illegal, Brewer said Thursday.

“I think it’s almost a given that – I won’t say our grants will dry up — but i think we will certainly lose some federal funding depending on where this goes, if it’s legalized or whatever,” Brewer said. Here’s the full discussion about the agency’s grant money:

Regulators, mount up

Republican Sen. Paul Hornback of Shelbyville has filed Senate Bill 50 , which creates the regulations for industrial hemp once the federal government allows the product to be grown. The legislation, which the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission endorsed on Monday, requires that anyone wanting to grow hemp would have to be licensed by the state. They would have to pass a criminal background check, and submit GPS coordinates of their hemp fields, agree to inspections and pledge to grow a minimum of ten acres of the crop.

Brewer said he is concerned that testing of the crops to make sure they are hemp — and not marijuana — would strap the already tight state police budget. (5:15 of the first video). Brewer said it would cost $1.75 million to start-up a testing lab and $250,000 to $300,000 per year to operate it.

But on Monday the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission proposed changes to S.B. 50, which would put the burden of testing and inspecting for THC content in hemp at the feet of the Kentucky Agriculture Department, which is headed by Comer.

The Ag Department already is positioned to handle that because it already tests for chemicals in fields, Comer said at Monday’s hemp commission meeting, which law enforcement representatives didn’t attend.

“It’s unfortunate that law enforcement (representatives) are not here today because the bill has gained so much support across the state,” Comer said. “We are willing to work with law enforcement if they have concerns. We are willing to sit down with them. They have a seat at the table to make this bill better.”

(NOTE: Brewer also expressed a fear that someone could illicitly grow marijuana in a hemp field. Comer has repeatedly rebutted that saying, “industrial hemp is marijuana’s worst nightmare.” Coming Friday: A look at who’s right on the biological arguments.)

About Nick Storm

Nick Storm joined cn|2 in December 2011 as a reporter for Pure Politics. He is now the Anchor and Managing Editor of Pure Politics. Throughout his career, Nick has covered several big political stories up close, including interviewing President Barack Obama on the campaign trail back in 2008. Nick says he loves being at the forefront of Kentucky politics and working with the brightest journalists in the commonwealth. Follow Nick on Twitter @NickStorm_cn2. Nick can be reached at 502-792-1107 or nicholas.storm@twcnews.com.

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