Kentucky is trying to bring back hemp, the close relative of marijuana that is used in a seemingly endless number of products like textiles, car parts, lotions and paper. But like its cousin, it’s illegal to grow hemp in the United States.
Some Kentucky politicians and farmers, though, see hemp as an alternative crop for struggling small tobacco producers and are working to change its legal status.
“I think hemp could be better than corn and soybeans here and I know it would be a lot better than all these fields of fescue that we don’t do anything with other than put up two rows of hay a year,” said Brian Furnish, an eighth-generation tobacco farmer from Cynthiana, Ky. who wants to diversify into industrial hemp.
Kentucky farmers would have a lot of catching up to do just to get a piece of a relatively small pie.The potential market for hemp is relatively unknown and the rest of the industrial world already produces it, led by China and Canada.
“You know, I’m not some crazy person who’s been brainwashed,” Furnish said. “I look at the realities of it and I’ve looked at the potential of it. It’s not a tobacco replacement. But it could be better than corn and soybeans for us.”
Furnish said he’s lucky to get 100 bushels of corn per acre. And those acres are few and far between in central Kentucky, where much of the farmland is hilly and marginal.
Hemp is native to Kentucky and flourished there through World War II. But, along with marijuana, it was classified as a controlled substance and production ceased by 1958.
Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer is leading the charge to pass legislation that establishes a regulatory framework for cultivating hemp. If passed, it will require criminal background checks for hemp growers, a minimum 10-acre plot and GPS coordinates of hemp fields.
Comer said central and eastern Kentucky has never been able to replace tobacco, and hemp provides an alternative.
“Twenty years ago, even 10 years ago, every farm in Kentucky had a tobacco base,” Comer said. “The government regulated tobacco. The government gave you a quota as to how much tobacco you could grow. So every little farm everywhere had tobacco patches.”
Now tobacco has been deregulated and farmers can grow as much as they like. Big farmers have pushed the small farms out and most of those big farms are concentrated in western Kentucky’s fertile farmland. Small part-time farmers in central and eastern Kentucky were left behind.
“They’ve never been able to replace the income that came from tobacco,” Comer said. “I think industrial hemp is something that you can grow in smaller quantities. You don’t have to grow 1,000 acres to make a profit like you do with corn or soybeans.”
Marijuana and hemp are different varieties of the same species. The main distinction is marijuana’s high level of THC, the compound that produces the drug’s high. Hemp has trace amounts.
The similar appearance has drawn criticism from law enforcement. On a Kentucky Educational Television panel, State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer argued law enforcement cannot easily distinguish between hemp and marijuana, especially during aerial surveillance.
“The big issue that we have is what is to prevent an unscrupulous farmer, maybe with or without his knowledge, from someone going in and planting 10, 15, 20 marijuana plants in the center of this one-acre, 10-acre tract,” Brewer said.
Comer said marijuana growers want to keep their plants away from hemp because cross-pollination reduces THC levels.
If Kentucky passes its hemp bill, farmers still need an exemption from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency and that agency doesn’t hand out exemptions willy-nilly. Eight other states have passed laws to legalize hemp, including a similar one in North Dakota. But the DEA gave an exemption just once, for research in Hawaii back in the ‘90s. So why bother passing a law if farmers can’t grow the crop?
Comer believes a tried and tested regulatory framework will help Kentucky avoid the conundrum states with medical marijuana laws face, where they can’t attract industry for fear the federal government may shut things down.
“There is a lot of economic demand for this,” Comer said. “And I believe that in a few years it will be legal to grow all over the United States. But hopefully by then, Kentucky has locked up the market and we have all the industrial manufacturing jobs and our farmers have a new option of a good crop to grow here in Kentucky.”
Comer has some powerful political allies, including Kentucky’s Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul, who co-sponsored a bill in the U.S. Senate to exclude hemp from the Controlled Substances Act. Other supporters include Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie and Rep. John Yarmuth, who filed similar legislation in the U.S. House. Three companies already want to offer farmers hemp contracts.
At the state level, the bill sailed through the Senate. But in the House, the agriculture committee chairman blocked a vote on the bill in late February in a contentious showdown that riled hemp supporters. Kentucky’s governor opposes the legislation for fears it will complicate marijuana eradication efforts.
Update: In late March, the Kentucky Legislature passed a bill that lays the groundwork for licensing hemp growers in the state.The Associate Press reports that state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer is leading a Kentucky delegation to Washington to ask for an exemption to allow farmers in his state to grow the crop.