Industrial hemp production in Kentucky is not economically sound, would impose an unnecessary financial burden on the state, and could facilitate future efforts to legalize its cousin – marijuana, according to law enforcement officials across the commonwealth.
“All of the rhetoric you’re hearing from the small group of proponents seeking to reintroduce hemp cultivation is based on desired outcomes, not reality,” said Dan Smoot, vice president of Operation UNITE (Unlawful Narcotics Investigations, Treatment and Education), an anti-drug organization covering 32 counties in southern and eastern Kentucky.
“You have some prominent people supporting Senate Bill 50 and House Bill 33, but they are looking through rose-colored glasses if they believe hemp production would be a good alternative crop or provide an economic boom,” said Smoot, who served 22 years with the Kentucky State Police (KSP), 14 in narcotics investigation. “Hemp is not in demand, would cause more problems than benefits, and is currently not permitted under federal law.”
Although industrial hemp contains only a small percentage of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, the plants are indistinguishable to the eye. Without laboratory analysis, you can’t tell them apart,” said Tommy Loving, executive director of the Kentucky Narcotic Officers’ Association (KNOA).
Because of this relationship, hemp is considered a controlled substance and is not legally able to be grown in the United States without a permit from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Any imported hemp products must meet a zero tolerance level.
Reacting to comments from state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer that hemp would have an “immediate impact of thousands of jobs,” officials expressed skepticism.
“Is there a limited market for industrial hemp? Probably so, but the market is not going to be as great as they’re proposing it to be,” said Sheriff Kevin Johnson of Clay County, one of the major marijuana-growing areas of the state. “Where are the independent studies? If there was a huge market for hemp there would be lobbyists sitting in Washington trying to get this legalized on a national level.”
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture has researched the economic potential for hemp grown by American farmers and found the U.S. Market for hemp fibers is, and will likely remain, only a small, thin market,” said Smoot. “In addition, studies conducted in parts of the world where hemp production is legal conclude that it is not profitable without subsidies and farmers need to be near processing facilities.”
Advocates for the legislation, which is expected to be addressed by the Kentucky General Assembly in coming weeks, maintain that requiring individuals to pass a background check, obtain a license to grow hemp, and plant at least 10 acres would provide safeguards and not inhibit efforts to locate illegal marijuana crops.
“One of our fears is that illegal growers will sign up as a legitimate hemp producer then co-mingle the crops,” Loving said. “While there could be some cross-pollination that would lower the quality of the marijuana, it wouldn’t be significant enough to impact this type of illegal venture.”
“It would be very enticing for someone to obtain a license to grow hemp, then divert a small part of their fields to growing illegal marijuana,” agreed Jere Hopson, director of the South Central Kentucky Drug Task Force. “Law enforcement wouldn’t be able to tell the difference without testing, and how would you even know which plants to test?”
“A half-acre of illegal marijuana would potentially outweigh the profit from 10 acres of hemp,” said Hopson, who recently retired from the KSP after 22 years, the last 14 with the Drug Enforcement/Special Investigations West Branch.
“I’ve been involved in the eradication of a lot of marijuana over the years with the Kentucky State Police,” Hopson noted. “I’ve had an opportunity to speak with many people who used to grow hemp when it was legal around World War II. They tell me that hemp is not an easy product to grow. It’s very labor-intensive from start to finish – probably more intensive than tobacco.”
“Unless a definite market for hemp can be identified, would there be people willing to put that much effort into this to make it worthwhile?” Hopson questioned. “There is no product that used to be made from hemp that can’t be made with cheaper and/or better materials today.”
“I believe this is just the first step in the process to legalize marijuana, which I’m definitely against,” Johnson said. “It has the potential of creating mass confusion and problems for law enforcement.”
Loving, who also serves as director of the Bowling Green-Warren County Drug Task Force, noted that more than 370 members of the KNOA voted unanimously to oppose hemp legislation at the group’s annual meeting this past November. In addition, the Kentucky Association of Chiefs of Police (KACP) Executive Board also unanimously voted to oppose hemp production.