Murray, KY – Not so many years ago in the United States, the hemp plant was widely grown for its fiber and seed. But hemp has fallen out of favor in the United States, partly due to its close relation to marijuana. Cultivating either is illegal, although that may change. Kentucky, once one of the leading hemp producers in the nations, is looking to revive the industry. Angela Hatton has the story.
Shirts, bags, jewelry, and twine are among the hemp merchandise that Murray retail store owner Valerie Hancock sells.
"I don't pick things because they're hemp, but I know that I have customers that come in who look specifically for hemp items or items that do contain hemp."
Hancock says the hemp for her products is cultivated and refined overseas, in countries like Turkey and Tibet. However, legislation headed for the 2010 Kentucky General Assembly would allow Hancock to buy her hemp from regional farmers. Senator Joey Pendleton of Hopkinsville is sponsoring a measure to legalize industrial hemp. Pendleton has backed the bill before, but he says this time is different.
"Now that the federal government is saying we're going to give it back to the states; if they want to legalize it and be able to grow it, that's up to them.' And that's why I got excited about it, and I think honestly that's the reason you're seeing this thing's catching on now."
Pendleton expects the Obama administration to formally announce in November or December that it will not interfere with a state's desire to legalize hemp. Pendleton believes Kentucky would greatly benefit from hemp production. Advocates for the plant point to its many uses over 25,000 to date according to information from to the North American Industrial Hemp Council. Those uses include cosmetics, car door panels, sun tan lotion and pressboard. As the Commonwealth focuses on a renewable energy plan, Pendleton says he's become interested in hemp's use as a bio-fuel.
"You make more bio-diesel or ethanol from an acre of hemp than you can from an acre of corn."
In the past, Pendleton says he's heard outcry from law enforcement at the proposition of legalizing hemp, but not so this time.
"But I think they're understanding more. Now the industrial hemp doesn't have the THC that the smoking kind has."
Hemp leaves contain less than one percent of the psychoactive chemical tetrahydrocannabinol, while marijuana leaves contain three to twenty percent THC. But not so fast, says Kentucky State Police spokesman Trooper John Hawkins. He says the KSP still very much opposes industrial hemp. Hawkins says it and marijuana are the same species, cannabis sativa.
"It's very difficult for us to determine by sight which one is hemp and which one is marijuana. So from an eradication standpoint it would make our job much more difficult."
Also Hawkins says the results of cross pollination between hemp and marijuana aren't known.
"You may get a lower THC content in marijuana, but you also may get a higher content with the hemp plant."
Senator Pendleton says this wouldn't be an issue because illegal drug growers wouldn't want to take the risk of diluting their crop. According to hemp farmers, their plant is usually harvested before the buds that contain THC develop. Farmers also plant hemp close together, further distinguishing it from marijuana, where plots are spread out.
Even though the organization opposes industrial hemp, Hawkins says the KSP won't move to block the measure.
"We just don't do that. If the legislature requests information from the state police, we'll provide that."
Pendleton believes Kentucky stands poised on the frontlines of hemp production, with a growing season twice as long as Canada's, the state's potential rival to the north. They've been cultivating hemp for over a decade. Other states too, including North Dakota and Maine, are working toward their own hemp infrastructures. In Kentucky, Pendleton says the hemp issue is win-win.
"I think with the way the economy is now, the agriculture community is looking for another crop. We're looking at biomass as to have an alternative there to corn. And then people are looking at number of people that's laid off; this will create jobs to get factories to come here to make things out of the product."
The 2010 General Assembly is still months ahead and there's no way to know for sure what greeting the hemp bill will receive in the legislature. But if Pendleton and his supporters are correct, this could be one seed that doesn't die on the Senate floor.