LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky's agriculture commissioner said Thursday a legal review reinforces the need for an industrial hemp bill, noting state regulations are needed in case a federal ban on its production is lifted without clear guidance.
The review by Attorney General Jack Conway's office in Frankfort comes as hemp supporters seek a showdown vote in the House on the measure, which would set up a system to license hemp growers if production becomes legal. The bill cleared a House committee this week but its prospects of coming up in the full House are uncertain.
The review didn't assess the hemp bill but looked at whether existing Kentucky law would allow Bluegrass state farmers to grow hemp if the federal ban is ended.
Hemp thrived in Kentucky generations ago but has been banned for decades since the federal government classified it as a controlled substance related to marijuana. Hemp has a negligible content of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.
"If federal law is changed but no federal regulatory scheme is provided, industrial hemp would be essentially unregulated in Kentucky," the AG's review said.
State Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said the findings underscore the need for state legislation to regulate hemp as a precursor to the crop's possible revival.
"Without it, achieving a waiver from the federal government to be the first state to grow hemp will be almost impossible because there will be no safeguards in place," Comer said in a statement. "Other states have already passed similar programs."
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who requested the review, remained skeptical about the need for the hemp legislation. The Prestonsburg Democrat said the federal government would never legalize the crop without regulating it.
"You can bet on that," Stumbo said in Frankfort.
Stumbo is a deep skeptic of the hemp bill, citing concerns from Kentucky State Police. Officials with the state's lead law-enforcement agency worry that marijuana growers could use hemp fields as cover for pot plants.
Hemp advocates say the possibility of an unregulated hemp industry should be more concerning for law enforcement.
Under the bill, the state would have GPS coordinates of licensed hemp fields. Hemp growers would undergo criminal background checks, and each grower would be limited to 10 acres per license. A production license would be valid for one year.
In a letter to Stumbo, Conway's office said the findings did not constitute a formal opinion. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the letter, dated Wednesday, as the result of an open-records request.
Comer has championed the hemp bill, saying its reintroduction would give farmers a new crop and would create processing jobs to turn the fiber and seeds into products ranging from paper to biofuels. Dozens of countries already produce the crop.
Hemp supporters say Kentucky needs the regulations to be at the forefront of the crop's comeback if the federal government gives its OK.
"If we don't act now, Speaker Stumbo will kill our chances to be first for these jobs," Comer said.
Stumbo said the bill would break new ground in Kentucky agriculture.
"I don't know of any precedent for the agriculture commissioner to issue a license to grow a crop," he said. "You can grow whatever crop you want to without a license from him. It's like tobacco, you didn't get any approval from the state to grow tobacco under the quota system. You had to get the federal regulatory approval. If the feds lift the (hemp) ban, I'm sure it will be somewhat the same. You'll have to do whatever they require and you'll have to get whatever permit they require."
Frankfort, Ky., correspondent Roger Alford contributed to this report.
The hemp legislation is Senate Bill 50.