Industrial hemp could give boost to state's ag industry

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Legalization could cause problem for law enforcement

By Leslie Moore

Two hundred years ago, Kentucky-grown hemp was in high demand all over the United States. And if bills filed in the House and Senate that will allow farmers to grow hemp pass through the Kentucky General Assembly, Kentucky could once again lead the nation in industrial hemp production.

While the bill would require federal approval before any hemp seeds could be sown, State Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, says Kentucky residents want to be ready to grow if given the green light by the federal government.

“I haven’t seen the bill yet, but I am supportive of the concept,” Higdon said. “I have had a lot of constituents who’ve called and asked me to be supportive.”

Products containing hemp - from clothing to skin-care products - can be found on store shelves and are legal to buy and sell. However, the hemp used to make these products must be imported from other countries, such as Canada.

Most of the controversy surrounding hemp is because of to its strong resemblance to its cousin, marijuana.

According to an editorial written by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., recently published in the Lexington Herald-Leader, there are distinct differences between marijuana and hemp. Paul, one of the state’s top politicians pushing for legalization of industrial hemp, wrote that marijuana contains 20 percent of the mind-altering chemical tetrohydrocannabinol, but industrial hemp contains less than 0.3 percent THC.

“So, the issue with hemp isn’t that the plant is harmful,” Paul wrote. “It’s that the plant might be mistaken for marijuana.”

According to Campbellsville Police Chief Tim Hazlette, not being able to easily identify one from the other could cause headaches for law enforcement when investigating suspected cases of marijuana growing.

“I don’t know that it’s discernible by the naked eye. In fact, I have never seen industrial hemp,” Hazlette said. “It’s the same family. The only distinguishable difference that I know of is the THC content.”

A 25-year Kentucky State Police veteran, Hazlette said he has seen his fair share of marijuana plants. He said the only way he could know for sure if a plant is marijuana or hemp is by lab testing. If there is another method, Hazlette said he has never heard of it.

State Rep. John “Bam” Carney, R-Campbellsville, said he had some initial reservations about the legalization of hemp, but has not decided if he will support the bill. Carney said Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer helped to clear his reservations after explaining the difference between marijuana and hemp.

“I want to continue to do what the constituents ask me to support,” Carney said. “It could be a chance to spur economic growth in rural Kentucky.”

Though he said he wants to learn more about hemp’s agricultural potential before making a decision but, at this point, he says he leans toward voting for the bill.

Pat Hardesty, county extension agent for agriculture and natural resources, said if industrial hemp is legalized, it has the potential to boost Kentucky agriculture and could attract manufacturers that produce hemp products to Kentucky.

Hardesty said the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture will not offer educational resources to farmers interested in growing hemp until it is entirely legal.

“If it does become legalized, I have no doubt that the College of Ag will give us the support we need to educate growers,” Hardesty said. “But until then, we can’t do anything with it.”

Hardesty said Kentucky’s climate is favorable for industrial hemp growth.

“If hemp became a profitable agricultural crop, that would be wonderful, but I don’t know that that would be the case,” Hazlette said. “I just don’t want to introduce something that’s going to camouflage illegal activity.”

To contact Higdon and Carney about legalizing industrial hemp, call (800) 372-7181.