Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky (AP)
Gregory A. Hall, The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The two most senior members of Kentucky's federal congressional delegation have taken opposite sides in the debate over legalizing industrial hemp in Kentucky.
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Thursday that he is supporting the effort to legalize the product -- saying he's been convinced of its economic potential for Kentucky's farmers and his state's economy.
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But U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, the 5th District Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement later in the day that he remains unconvinced that the economic potential outweighs the concerns of law enforcement.
Kentucky Senate Bill 50, pushed by state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, would allow production of industrial hemp if the federal government reclassified the plant as separate from marijuana.
Hemp seeds produce plants with less than 1 percent THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, which has between 3 percent and 15 percent THC.
The Kentucky State Police oppose the bill, saying it would make enforcement efforts against marijuana, which looks identical to hemp, more difficult. Also opposing the bill are the Kentucky Narcotic Officers' Association and Operation UNITE, an Eastern Kentucky drug eradication group founded by Rogers.
Besides McConnell, a Republican, the bill is backed by GOP Sen. Rand Paul, Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth and Rep. Thomas Massie, a Republican, all three of whom are scheduled to testify Feb. 11 before the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Supporters of the bill say they believe it will pass the Senate and go to the House, where it faces a more uncertain future. Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom McKee, a Democrat, has blocked similar bills from getting a vote in the past and has said the complaints of law enforcement concern him.
McConnell's statement said he'd discussed the issue with Paul and Comer at length.
"I am convinced that allowing its production will be a positive development for Kentucky's farm families and economy," McConnell said in his statement. "Commissioner Comer has assured me that his office is committed to pursuing industrialized hemp production in a way that does not compromise Kentucky law enforcement's marijuana eradication efforts or in any way promote illegal drug use."
Comer welcomed McConnell's support, noting in a statement that his backing "adds immeasurable strength to our efforts to bring good jobs to Kentucky."
The bill, sponsored by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, was filed earlier in January. Hornback said yesterday that he expects the bill to pass his committee Feb. 11 and later pass the 38-member Senate, where Comer has said the bill has more than enough support.
The bill would require growers to be licensed annually and undergo a background check by the Agriculture Department. Each licensee would be required to plant a minimum of 10 acres, a provision meant to keep licenses from people who are not serious about the effort.
Growers would have to keep sales contracts for three years and provide names of hemp buyers to the department.
Rogers said in his statement that his "first concern is the challenge facing our thinly stretched marijuana eradication teams and law enforcement in visually distinguishing the two plants. This confusion and potential commingling lends itself to an easier path for illegal marijuana growth."
Rogers also questioned claims that hemp production would result in an "economic boon" for Kentucky as proponents claim.
"We need to focus on more important issues like enacting pension reform, getting our federal deficits under control and tackling the existing drug epidemic," Rogers said.
Comer spokeswoman Holly VonLuehrte said allowing industrial hemp would help create jobs to get people off drugs. "There's nothing more important than creating jobs for Kentuckians," she said.
Tommy Loving, executive director of the Kentucky Narcotic Officers' Association, said, "I think it would be foolish to say that this doesn't have some momentum," but he said he hopes the bill gets a fair hearing from the committee, "and I think if they do, they'll see that the law enforcement concerns outweigh what might come about (economically) if this were passed."
KSP spokesman Sgt. Rick Saint-Blancard said the agency's position is well known and "at the end of the day we hope that the decision is made on facts."
McKee did not return a call for comment Thursday.
VonLuehrte said Comer has received support for the bill in meetings throughout the state and that the bill deserves a vote in the House.
"If they (House leadership) ignore it, they ignore it to their peril," she said.