Hemp is not new to our state. The first hemp plant was grown in Kentucky in 1775, and Kentucky led the nation in hemp production until the Civil War. Used as a fiber to make fabrics, textiles, construction materials, clothing, paper and many other products, hemp was a staple cash crop in America for many decades. Famed statesman Henry Clay, who, like us, represented Kentucky in the U.S. Senate, grew hemp.
Under current federal law, however, industrial hemp is classified as a controlled substance like marijuana, limiting the ability of Kentucky farmers to grow it. This is despite the fact that, while industrial hemp and marijuana come from the same plant family, hemp plants contain virtually no THC, the chemical that causes the high associated with marijuana.
Furthermore, consumers across the country currently enjoy hemp products despite the domestic restrictions on farming industrial hemp. Each year, the United States imports over $600 million in hemp and hemp products from other countries — in fact, we are the world’s largest consumer of hemp. If Kentucky farmers can capture a portion of that market, those dollars could potentially flow into Kentucky.
That’s why in 2014, we advocated for language in the farm bill that allows Kentucky and other states with similar state laws and interest to begin growing industrial hemp again through research pilot programs at universities and state departments of agriculture. Last year, we built upon that success with legislation that now allows legally grown hemp from these pilot programs to be transported and processed.
The results have been encouraging — by 2016, the commonwealth has more than 150 pilot programs to grow hemp, with participation from seven Kentucky universities and numerous farmers on 4,500 acres of land. Former Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer was an early champion for industrial hemp in Kentucky and was instrumental in developing these pilot programs. Current commissioner Ryan Quarles is continuing his good work on this issue.
We’ve heard from countless Kentuckians that these initial hemp pilot programs are a great success, and we share that excitement. Industrial hemp has great potential to expand agricultural opportunities for farmers and grow our economy, which is why we want to continue helping our farmers and researchers further develop this potential market domestically.
In the Senate, we will continue to work to support the hemp pilot programs now underway, and to help them to flourish. We’ve worked to enact legislation that protects the importation of hemp seeds that are vital to our research pilot programs.
We’re also sponsors, along with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden from Oregon, of the Industrial Hemp Farming Act, which would amend federal law to allow hemp to be grown for industrial purposes beyond just research pilot programs.
This week marks the seventh annual Hemp History Week. Given the important history of hemp in our state and throughout the nation, we felt it was important to remember the role hemp has played in Kentucky’s past, and to envision a future where hemp is a viable crop once again and represents a crucial part of our state’s robust and growing economy.
In order to commemorate Hemp History Week, we’ve joined together with a bipartisan group of senators to introduce a resolution designating the week of June 6 the official Hemp History Week.
While research on industrial hemp continues, the commodity represents an opportunity to provide a shot in the arm for Kentucky’s agricultural sector. We are hopeful that hemp growth will help Kentucky farmers and create jobs. It’s an opportunity Kentucky must not miss, and based on the expanded growth of research pilot programs in Kentucky, it seems our farmers agree.
It’s time to once again reap the benefits of this commodity. We’re working to see that Kentucky takes the lead in the resurgence of this versatile and promising crop.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul represent Kentucky in the U.S. Senate.