Sen. Rand Paul and Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer are playing a game of chicken with the federal government over the growing of industrial hemp in the state.
Encouraged by the state’s Industrial Hemp Commission, Comer and Paul plan to draft a letter to U.S. Department of Justice indicating that Kentucky will proceed with adopting regulations and issuing permits for farmers to begin planting the controversial crop as early as next February, unless they are told otherwise.
Paul and Comer, both Republicans, hope to provoke clarity on the current legality of growing hemp in Kentucky, which remains murky in the wake of a memo released last month by U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole. That Aug. 30 memo stated that the federal government will respect state marijuana laws, which advocates believe likely includes the legalization of hemp production.
A spokesperson for Paul said that the junior Kentucky senator intends “to be a part of correspondence with the Department of Justice” and that Paul “supports the work of the Hemp Commission and supports Commissioner Comer’s efforts to move forward with the reintroduction of industrial hemp in Kentucky.”
Paul, long a vocal advocate for legalizing hemp, has donated $25,000 to the hemp commission through his RandPAC, the State-Journal has reported.
Comer sent a previous letter to the Justice Department earlier this year urging the federal government to lift its ban on hemp. That letter was co-signed by a whos-who of Kentucky politicians—including Paul, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, and Reps. John Yarmuth and Thomas Massie, a Democrat and Republican, respectively.
It's gone unanswered.
“Seven out of eight of our federal delegation, they never got a response from [the] DOJ,” Comer said. “So we’re going to try Plan B. We’re just going to send them a letter saying, 'okay, this is what we’re going to do, unless you tell us otherwise.’”
The commission also voted today to clarify the language of state legislation legalizing hemp production to allow for state legislators to hold seats on the commission. It also voted to request a draft of regulations from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture regarding hemp production.
The Kentucky General Assembly passed Senate Bill 50 in the 2013 regular session that greenlights the creation of a regulatory framework for Kentucky hemp production should the federal government lift its ban on cultivating the plant.
Kentucky State Police Maj. Anthony Terry informed the commission that the Office of the U.S. Attorney General plans to issue an opinion clarifying that the Cole memo changes nothing in Kentucky with respect to marijuana because the state hasn’t legalized the drug for recreational or medical purposes.
Holly Harris, Comer’s chief of staff, said that while that may be the case regarding marijuana, hemp is a different matter altogether. She said that because Senate Bill 50 decouples hemp from the definition of marijuana, then hemp is legal at the state-level.
She said that Cole’s congressional testimony given by Cole on Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee further legitimizes the hemp commission’s plans to push forward with the permitting process. In his testimony, the U.S. deputy attorney general indicated that the Justice Department will refrain from prosecuting hemp farmers in states where the crop is legal.
Harris added that Paul and Comer plan to draft their letter “soon.” That letter is the latest bid by Comer to lobby the federal government to sanction the growing of hemp for industrial and research purposes in the state.
On Tuesday, Comer joined Massie to evangelize the crop’s potential to Congressional staffers and to lobby for legislation that would exempt hemp from any definition of marijuana as defined in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
While hemp is chemically different from marijuana and is not used as a drug, it is treated similarly to its psychoactive cousin by law enforcement agencies because of a lack of clarity in federal law prohibiting illegal drugs. The Controlled Substances Act does not mention hemp by name, but that hasn’t stopped law enforcement agencies from interpreting it as such.
As a result, hemp advocates would prefer standing legislation that would specifically decouple hemp from marijuana at the federal level. Two such bills are currently circulating Congress.
A recent study by University of Kentucky agricultural economists found that hemp production in the state would create fewer jobs than expected, which Comer said failed to take into account other factors. The non-partisan Congressional Research Service released a study in July which estimated the potential domestic market for hemp production to be $500 million a year.
According to Comer, how much of that potential market Kentucky will claim depends on how quickly the state can capitalize on an emerging hemp market to be “first in the nation.”