FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) -- Industrial hemp's growth from the fringes to the political mainstream in Kentucky continued Thursday, with state Senate passage of a bill to strictly regulate the crop if the federal government lifts its current ban on the one-time agricultural staple in the Bluegrass state.
The bill, which would license hemp growers if the crop gains a federal reprieve, cleared the Senate on a 31-6 vote as supporters promoted its potential to diversify Kentucky farms in an era when tobacco's influence has waned. They said hemp's comeback would create processing and manufacturing jobs in converting the plant into products that include paper, clothing, auto parts, biofuels, food and lotions.
Sen. Paul Hornback, a tobacco farmer and the bill's lead sponsor, said Kentucky needs to be at the forefront of giving the versatile crop a chance if the federal ban is lifted. The Shelbyville Republican said he had heard recently from two companies interested in capitalizing on a hemp comeback in Kentucky, including a processing company in Canada looking to expand and offer production contracts to farmers.
"Give us the opportunity," Hornback said. "Put us in a position in Kentucky to give us an opportunity to see how this works. I don't think anybody knows exactly what the economic impact's going to be in Kentucky. We don't know what the economic viability is going to be."
The bill now heads to the House, where its prospects are much less certain.
"I think it'll have a little tougher time here," House Speaker Greg Stumbo told reporters.
Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said hemp supporters haven't yet proven there's a viable market for the crop that vanished from U.S. farms decades ago.
"It's not that we're saying 'no,'" Stumbo said. "We're simply saying that the evidence doesn't show that there's enough of a market to override the concerns that the law enforcement community has."
Law enforcement skeptics, including Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer, worry that officers will be unable to detect the difference between hemp and marijuana without costly lab tests. They worry marijuana growers would infiltrate hemp fields to plant small plots of pot. Supporters have tried to debunk that claim, saying growers would avoid hemp fields because the hemp would greatly diminish the potency of the marijuana.
Republican Sen. Chris Girdler of Somerset, who opposed the bill, expressed doubts about hemp's economic potential. He said he hopes he's wrong and that hemp produces thousands of jobs if it makes a comeback, but added, "Unfortunately, I believe that growing a Chia Pet would have as much economic prosperity as the growing of hemp."
U.S. retail sales of hemp products exceed $400 million per year, advocates say. Dozens of countries produce hemp, and most imported hemp is grown in Canada and Europe. Girdler said hemp producers there are supported by government subsidies, a claim disputed by national hemp advocates.
State Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who has championed efforts to re-establish hemp, hailed the Senate vote.
"Today's bipartisan vote is the first step toward more opportunities for our farmers and jobs for Kentuckians," he said.
Last year, Comer re-convened an industrial hemp commission that had been dormant for years. Hemp support gained momentum with endorsements from many of Kentucky's most powerful politicians, including Republican U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul and U.S. Reps. John Yarmuth, the state's lone Democrat in the congressional delegation, and Thomas Massie, a Republican.
Comer has cautioned that hemp will remain absent from Kentucky until the federal government legalizes the crop.
On Thursday, McConnell and Paul introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate to allow the nation's farmers to grow industrial hemp. The measure, also sponsored by Oregon Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, both Democrats, would remove the crop from the list of controlled substances under federal law.
The Kentucky senators said hemp packs the potential to boost the state's economy and generate new jobs, especially in rural communities.
Paul made a pitch for hemp during a state Senate committee hearing on Monday. He even wore a shirt made of hemp fiber. Paul has said he would seek a federal waiver to allow for a resumption of hemp production in Kentucky if the federal legislation stalls.
If the bill in Kentucky is approved by the full Legislature, the Bluegrass state would join eight others that have taken steps to allow commercial hemp production, despite the federal ban.
Industrial hemp once thrived in Kentucky, but the leafy crop has been banned for decades since the federal government classified it as a controlled substance related to marijuana. Hemp has a negligible content of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.
Under the Kentucky bill, the state agriculture department would license hemp growers and production would be subject to inspection. Growers would undergo criminal background checks. A production license would be valid for one year and a grower would be limited to 10 acres for each license.
The legislation is Senate Bill 50.