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FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Industrial hemp supporters hit a roadblock Wednesday when a Kentucky House committee took no action on a bill that would set up strict state oversight of the one-time agricultural staple if the federal government ever pardons the illegal crop.
The House Agriculture and Small Business Committee heard nearly two hours of testimony but took no vote on the measure, which would allow the state agriculture department to license hemp growers if production becomes legal. A motion seeking a vote was ruled out of order by committee Chairman Tom McKee.
McKee wants to revamp the bill to seek a university-led study of hemp, which thrived in Kentucky generations ago but 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.
McKee, D-Cynthiana, said he planned to reconvene the committee later Wednesday to resume reviewing the legislation.
Hemp supporters, led by Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, a Republican, urged the committee to resist a rewrite and approve the version that easily passed the Senate.
"This issue symbolizes what's wrong with the Kentucky General Assembly," Comer told reporters after the committee hearing. "The majority of the legislators want to do good things, they want to create jobs, they want to help farmers, but it gets bogged down in the political bickering."
McKee, a northern Kentucky farmer, insisted his proposed changes would be a "much more aggressive" way to promote hemp. His version would enable researchers to seek a federal permit to allow experimental hemp production in hopes of having a crop this year, he said.
"The fact that we could get some in the ground this year growing, we'd be a big step ahead," he told reporters. "Our farmers could actually see it growing."
Under the Senate-passed bill, the state would have access to GPS coordinates of licensed hemp fields. Hemp growers would undergo criminal background checks, and each grower would be limited to 10 acres per license. A production license would be valid for one year.
Hemp languished as a fringe issue for years but has emerged as a hotly debated topic as Comer championed the crop while traveling the state.
Comer says hemp's reintroduction would give farmers a new crop and would create processing jobs to turn the fiber and seeds into products ranging from paper to biofuels. Dozens of countries already produce the crop.
Kentucky's U.S. senators, Republicans Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, are key sponsors of legislation aimed at allowing the nation's farmers to grow industrial hemp. That measure would remove the crop from the list of controlled substances under federal law.
U.S. Reps. John Yarmuth and Thomas Massie, both of Kentucky, are co-sponsoring House legislation also seeking to allow commercial hemp production.
One powerful skeptic is Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo. The Prestonsburg Democrat worries a hemp comeback would complicate marijuana eradication efforts in Kentucky. He's also raised doubts about market demand for the crop.
Stumbo said Wednesday that he is asking the attorney general to determine if long-dormant state law dealing with the crop would already address regulation if the federal hemp ban is lifted. If that's the case, then lawmakers should focus on the study suggested by McKee, Stumbo wrote in an email.
Other hemp opponents include Kentucky State Police, the state's lead law-enforcement agency. Officials there have said marijuana growers could use hemp fields as cover for pot plants. But hemp supporters say marijuana growers would actually avoid hemp fields because cross-pollination would weaken the potency of pot.
The legislation is Senate Bill 50.