McConnell announces plan to legalize industrial hemp

McConnell announces plan to legalize industrial hemp
Hemp planted as part of Kentucky's Hemp Pilot Program.
There are several hemp products made in Kentucky. (Source: WAVE 3 News)
There are several hemp products made in Kentucky. (Source: WAVE 3 News)

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - The potential to make millions from industrial hemp could help replace money Kentucky farmers used to make growing tobacco.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) revealed a way to make that happen Monday morning.

McConnell said he plans to introduce the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 when he returns to Washington, which will legalize industrial hemp and remove it from the list of controlled substances.

Those profiting from the plant -- making different products out of it like housing insulation, food, fiber and fuel -- are hopeful about the future, and excited about the announcement.

In Louisville, the Farmington Historic Plantation used to look very different. Nearly two centuries ago, 550 acres were filled with tall hemp plants.

"We have babies coming up everywhere," Executive Director Kathy Nichols said, while walking through Farmington's hemp test plot. "Here's a few right here."

The crop eventually became illegal, but some hope it may soon see a renaissance in the Bluegrass State, filling the economic void of a declining tobacco industry.

"Whether it'll rival tobacco, that's yet to be seen," Ryan Quarles, the Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture, said. "But there is something I know for certain, due to the farmer-led research in Kentucky, we are the best positioned state to capture the economic impact."

Growers and processors have been experimenting with that.

Research exemptions in the federal 2014 Farm Bill allowed people to grow test plots, and make certain products.

"We have the know-how," Alyssa Erickson, co-founder of the Kentucky Hemp Heritage Alliance, said. "Now, we need the legal restrictions off of the crop."

Other business owners who grow and process the plant said they agree. But some criticism of hemp legalization comes from concerns of over-production hurting the market.

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"I think the demand will skyrocket once this legislation passes and people feel comfortable that the DEA is not going to come in and take the product off their shelf," Bill Hilliard, the CEO of Atalo Holdings Inc., said.

McConnell said perception of the crop, which doesn't get people high and is genetically and chemically different from marijuana, has improved since passage of 2014 Farm Bill.

"There was a lot of discussion about, 'What is this? Is this the same as the elicit cousin?'" McConnell said. "I think we've moved past that."

McConnell said the bill would allow states to oversee commercial hemp activities, if they develop individual plans to do so, and make interstate transfers easier.

He added state law enforcement in Kentucky seemed comfortable with the proposed legislation.

McConnell said he plans to introduce the bill when congress is back in session following the current state work period.

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