POLITICS
03/12/2013 10:00 am ET Updated Mar 15, 2013

Kentucky Hemp Bill On The Ropes, Will Die Without Vote, Says State House Speaker Greg Stumbo

A bill that would provide the fabric for a legal hemp industry in Kentucky is set to die in the state House, the chamber's top lawmaker declared Monday, strongly suggesting that the popular effort will come unraveled without a final vote.

Introduced by state Sen. Paul Hornback (R-Shelbyville), SB 50 would establish procedures for licensing and regulating prospective hemp growers. The framework would only be utilized if the plant -- which is nearly identical to marijuana, but whose strains produce a negligible amount of the psychoactive agent tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC -- was legalized at the federal level.

State House Speaker Greg Stumbo (D-Prestonsburg), a firm opponent of legalizing hemp, told reporters that the legislation was tied up in the House Rules committee and wouldn't emerge, despite having received backing from a number of state lawmakers.

SB 50 has overwhelmingly passed a vote in the state Senate and in two state House committees. Half of the state's U.S. congressional delegation has announced support for the measure, as have Kentucky Sens. Rand Paul (R) and Mitch McConnell (R), who have also aligned behind federal legislation to remove hemp from its Schedule I classification, where the Drug Enforcement Administration has lumped it in alongside heroin, PCP, ecstasy and marijuana.

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer (R) has been perhaps the most vocal champion of the Bluegrass State's hemp legalization campaign. He's frequently promoted the crop -- which can be manufactured into textiles or rope and used for a variety of other purposes and products -- as a potential source of revenue and jobs. He appeared upset Monday at news that the bill had made it this far only to appear sentenced to a silent death.

"Speaker Stumbo is a tone-deaf, one-man band trying to kill the only jobs bill this session," Comer said, according to the Associated Press. "This bill has come to symbolize everything wrong with Frankfort, and I hope Stumbo's fellow Democrats recognize the backlash that will result if they follow their leader on this one."

A strand of hope still remains for the bill, however, as Comer and Kentucky House Republican Leader Jeff Hoover (R-Jamestown) have both suggested that Stumbo could force a vote on the legislation in the coming days, if he so desired.

While Comer hasn't given up on the bill yet, Stumbo appears intent on allowing the measure to die on the vine. On Monday, he reiterated his opposition to SB 50, citing both procedural grounds and concerns that passing the legislation in advance of a potential federal law could lead to future complications for the state.

Stumbo's deliberate inaction would be welcome news to Kentucky's law enforcement community. Officials have denounced the measure, claiming that approving industrial hemp production would give pot growers cover to hide illegal marijuana strains alongside their legalized, THC-deficient counterparts. Industrial hemp supporter and former CIA Director R. James Woolsey recently rejected this suggestion, saying that the two strains could cross-pollinate if cultivated in close proximity, leaving the more potent and more profitable one less valuable.

Kentucky cops have also argued that the move could hamstring the state police force's pot eradication campaign, which managed to spend $1.2 million in a 2012 anti-drug push that produced only 42 citations and eight arrests, according to a LEO Weekly review of Kentucky State Police budget numbers. While this rate of return of about $156,421 per arrest could prompt broader questions about the economic effectiveness of drug prohibition and eradication efforts, opponents of hemp legalization have accused supporters of lobbying for an inappropriately large investment into an industry that skeptics say is being overvalued.

Industrial hemp representatives have estimated that U.S. imports of hemp-based products such as clothes, textiles, food, dietary supplements account for nearly $420 million in annual sales. A Congressional Research Service report that narrowly considered only the importation of specifically labeled raw hemp, however, projected the value of U.S. imports at closer to $12 million.

Stumbo's apparent resistance to allowing the state to begin laying the framework for an industrial hemp industry comes as recent polling has shown that Bluegrass State residents are supportive of green grass as well. A Louisville Courier-Journal survey from February found 65 percent of respondents support industrial hemp production in Kentucky. The same poll found 60 percent of Kentuckians are in favor of legalizing marijuana for medicinal use.

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