Is industrial hemp, once a major cash crop in Kentucky, about to make a comeback in the state? Maybe although major obstacles would still have to be overcome before Kentucky farmers could again legally grow hemp, which produces strong fibers used in fabrics, ropes and other materials.
The biggest of those obstacles is the federal ban on hemp production. While the Kentucky General Assembly could legalize hemp, it will do little good unless Congress lifts the federal restrictions on hemp, a cousin to marijuana.
For many years, some Kentuckians have promoted hemp as an excellent alternative cash crop to tobacco. The late Gatewood Galbraith, a perennial candidate for governor and other offices, was a strong advocate for industrial hemp, but his argument in support of the crop was weakened by Galbraith’s support of legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes. Actor Woody Harrelson made several well-publicized trips to Kentucky to advocate for the legalization of hemp. He wore clothes made of hemp and even spoke to at least one school classroom. To the surprise of many, the Kentucky Farm Bureau even came out in support of industrial hemp as a cash crop.
But hemp has had few supporters in the Kentucky General Assembly. That’s because legislators fear supporting industrial hemp would portray them as being pro-marijuana.
But the times they are a-changing in Frankfort. For the first time ever, two bills to allow the production of industrial hemp have received a hearing. The House Agriculture and Small Business Committee held a hearing Wednesday on the two bills. Neither bill was called for a vote, and the odds of either bill being approved by the 2012 General Assembly remain long. Nevertheless, hemp at least is being debated publicly in the General Assembly.
One reason for the change is the election of Jamie Comer, a former legislator, a farmer and a hemp proponent, as agriculture commissioner. The hemp issue was a centerpiece in last year’s race for agriculture commissioner, which was won decisively by Comer, the only Republican to win a statewide race. However, we don’t think hemp was the deciding issue in the race. Comer clearly was the superior candidate in his race against Democrat Bob Farmer, who was a farmer only in name.
Comer contends growing industrial hemp would allow expansion of Kentucky farm markets and create jobs in rural communities. Industrial hemp is used to make fuel, cattle feed, textiles, paper, lotion, cosmetics and other products. Though it contains only trace amounts of the mind-altering chemical tetrahydrocannabinol that makes marijuana intoxicating, it remains illegal in the U.S.
Ed Shemelya, regional marijuana coordinator in the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, said police continue to oppose legalization of hemp because there’s no way to visually distinguish it from marijuana. “It’s an enforcement nightmare,” Shemelya said.
State Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, said he believes people are beginning to realize the potential economic value of hemp and that is allowing political leaders to feel more comfortable in promoting it.
Sen. Joey Pendleton, D-Hopkinsville, said he expects the federal government will lift the ban on hemp production in the future, and that he wants Kentucky to be ready to plant the crop as soon as that happens.
Kentucky has an ideal climate for hemp production and during World War II it was a leading grower of the plant. Will it be again? Don’t hold your breath, but attitudes are definitely changing.
Frankly, it is difficult to determine if a broad market for industrial hemp would develop if it were legalized. For example, hemp was once used to make ropes, but manufacturers are not likely to stop producing nylon ropes and return to hemp ropes. Will American consumers buy clothes made out of hemp instead of cotton, wool and synthetic fibers? Will paper mills start using hemp instead of trees to make their product?
These and other questions will never be answered as long as Congress bans industrial hemp. The hemp bills are not going to be approved by the 2012 General Assembly, but at least they are being heard. That’s a tiny step forward.
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