Lawmakers in the Kentucky House beat the clock on Tuesday, approving a bill as the legislative session expired that would establish a framework for a legal hemp industry in the Bluegrass State.
The 88-4 vote marked a victory for industrial hemp advocates who had been disheartened just weeks before, when House Speaker Greg Stumbo (D-Prestonburg) declared that the measure would die without a vote. After days of wrangling over the specifics of the hemp licensing and regulation duties within the bill, however, lawmakers reached an agreement and pushed it through in an eleventh-hour vote. The state Senate, which had already passed an earlier version of the legislation, approved the House bill moments later.
Under SB 50, Kentucky's Department of Agriculture would oversee the state's hemp commission, which would license future farmers. Research functions would be passed to the University of Kentucky, and the Kentucky State Police -- a primary opponent of the measure -- would be given significant enforcement duties. SB 50 would give law enforcement responsibility for conducting background checks on applicants, monitoring registered industrial hemp fields and performing random tests of industrial hemp.
The bill now goes to Gov. Steve Beshear (D), who has expressed concerns about legal hemp in the past. He hasn't said whether he plans to veto it or sign it into law.
Even if Beshear signs the bill, however, the actual growing of hemp -- a Schedule I drug under federal law, alongside heroin and PCP -- wouldn't necessarily commence. The legislation is contingent upon federal action approving the cultivation of hemp in Kentucky, or more broadly removing the plant, which looks similar to marijuana but contains low levels of the psychoactive agent THC, from a list of banned substances.
SB 50 has the backing of federal lawmakers, who have vowed to follow through with the necessary action from Washington. While federal legislation has been introduced to legalize the production of hemp, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) released a statement Wednesday promising to seek a waiver from the Drug Enforcement Administration in order to fast-track the development of industrial hemp.
“Senate Bill 50 is an important step forward in the reintroduction of industrial hemp in Kentucky," Paul said. "I have pledged, along with Rep. John Yarmuth, to seek a waiver when a regulatory framework is in place. I will follow through on that pledge and I hope that Kentucky will soon start growing hemp, creating jobs and leading the nation in this industry again.”
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also said he planned to press for an immediate federal solution.
"I will continue to work with Senator Paul on a federal approach that would enable Kentucky farmers to cultivate and profit from industrial hemp in a way that does not compromise Kentucky law enforcement's marijuana eradication efforts or in any way promote illegal drug use," he said.