FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Industrial hemp supporters ratcheted up political pressure Thursday, trying to force a House committee to vote on legislation that would set up state oversight of the crop.
The vocal group was led by state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who has championed efforts to revive hemp production in Kentucky if the federal government ever lifts its ban on the crop. Comer continued to insist that House Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom McKee allow a vote on the measure. The panel took no action on the bill Wednesday following lengthy testimony.
Brian Furnish, a member of the state industrial hemp commission, lives in McKee's rural district in northern Kentucky. Furnish warned that McKee, a longtime Democratic House member from Cynthiana, would face a strong election opponent in 2014 if he continued to stymie the legislation.
"In our district, we're not very happy that our ag committee chairman ... is stopping the only ag jobs creation bill in the General Assembly," Furnish said.
Furnish, a Republican and prominent tobacco farmer, declined to say whether he would run against McKee. Furnish was once an agriculture adviser to former Gov. Ernie Fletcher.
He said hemp wouldn't replace tobacco as a cash producer in portions of central and eastern Kentucky where the terrain isn't suitable for large-scale grain production, but he said hemp would be a viable crop. He said that hemp would be ideal for some of his farmland.
McKee said the hemp bill was still under review but the committee wouldn't meet again this week. He suggested there might be an opportunity to merge portions of the original bill with a revamped version he is promoting. Time is a factor, though, since Thursday was the 21st legislative day in the 30-day session.
McKee wants to revamp the bill to allow a university-led study of hemp, which 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.
McKee said his version would enable researchers to seek a federal permit to allow experimental hemp production in hopes of having a small crop this year.
Comer and other hemp supporters oppose the rewrite, saying Kentucky risks losing a chance to become a national hemp leader if it doesn't set up a regulatory system ahead of any federal action to legalize hemp production.
Under the Senate-passed bill, the state would license hemp producers and have GPS coordinates of hemp fields. Hemp growers would undergo criminal background checks, and each grower would be limited to 10 acres per license.
McKee said the issue has become polarizing and he'd like to meet with the bill's leading supporters to try to find common ground.
"We just need to back away from this subject and try to be realistic and try to pass some legislation," he said.
Officials with Kentucky State Police worry that marijuana growers could use hemp fields as cover for pot plants. They say hemp and marijuana are not distinguishable without lab tests. Hemp supporters counter that marijuana growers would avoid hemp fields because cross-pollination would weaken the potency of pot.
Comer promotes hemp as a way to create jobs by luring processors who would turn the crop's fiber and seeds into a multitude of products ranging from paper to biofuels. Dozens of countries already produce the crop.
Comer, a Republican, has been mentioned as a possible candidate for Kentucky governor in 2015, adding to the political intrigue surrounding the hemp bill. Comer said he hasn't given it any thought, but added, "People are calling and encouraging me to do that because they're frustrated and they want bold leadership."