Hemp Back as a Political Issue

Most of the seven candidates running for Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner have one attention getting thing in common…they support legalizing industrial hemp.  WEKU’S Ron Smith reports on the growing political support for the once taboo plant.

On a Kentucky Educational Television broadcast, both Republican candidates, James Comer and Rob Rothenberger, pledged their support for cultivating industrial hemp.

Those sentiments are shared by Democrats Stewart Gritton, B.D. Wilson, and Robert Farmer.

The position of fellow Democrat David Williams is unclear while John Lackey adamantly opposes legalization. 

It wasn’t long ago that candidates who endorsed hemp cultivation put their political careers at risk because of hemp’s unsavory cousin, marijuana. But attitudes are changing. 

“I’m really excited to see now, ten years after the work that many of us did on hemp, that there are candidates who are brave enough now to speak of it freely,” said Andrew Graves. 

As President of the Kentucky Hemp Growers Association, Graves gave five years of his life to the legalization cause.

After continually hitting his head against a brick wall, he now builds walls, giving up farming for the masonry trade.

The past few years have seen a political turn around in the Commonwealth, with legislation introduced in the Kentucky senate to legalize industrial hemp. Bill sponsor Joey Pendleton of Hopkinsville attributes the about face to two things.

“Number one, the public has been educated, by sending that bill out there two different times now, and I spoke all over the state about it. I’ve worked with law enforcement, especially in the west, I met with the sheriff’s association,” said Pendleton.

A second reason behind political acceptance says Pendleton, is hemp’s economic card.

“The University of Louisville did a study on it and said it would mean about 17,000 immediate jobs and also the impact on the economy would be $400 to 500 million.”

And at a time of climbing gasoline prices, Pendleton touts hemp’s use as a homegrown biofuel. His bill went nowhere in 2009 and 2010, dying in the senate agriculture committee. Pendleton vows to take his message around the state prior to the 2012 session and already sees support on the other side of the aisle…

“I feel like we’re gonna' be able to get sponsors in the House of Representatives as well as sponsors and co-sponsors more of in the Senate which is why I’m more optimistic about getting it passed in this session,” said Pendleton.

Despite the optimism, prospective growers in Kentucky face formidable obstacles. They not only need approval from the state but must seek a permit from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Potential producers must also comply with rigorous DEA security procedures.

But if the pieces fall into place, Andrew Graves vows a return to the farm.

“I would in a heartbeat. I think it’s a very viable crop. If I hadn’t thought so, I wouldn’t have given it five minutes, ten years ago.  As it was, I gave it five years, trying to push it along,” said Pendleton. 

Graves says he’s willing to rejoin the fight. But for now, others are pushing the hemp issue, led by politicians like those in this year’s race for state agriculture commissioner.