FRANKFORT, Ky. — U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell came to Frankfort Monday to announce a major push to legalize hemp, hoping to boost Kentucky's economy.
The bill would remove hemp — sometimes called marijuana's kissing cousin — from the federal list of controlled substances, clearing up confusion about whether its products are or aren't legal.
McConnell joined Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, who oversees the state's hemp program, for Monday's media briefing detailing the Hemp Farming Act of 2018. The bill is intended to help farmers diversity, create more jobs and increase sales revenue amid Kentucky's pension crisis.
But narcotics detectives have fought the legalization of hemp since 2012.
"Our problem is the hemp plant is identical in appearance to a marijuana plant," Tommy Loving, head of the Kentucky Narcotic Officers' Association, told a Courier Journal reporter Monday.
McConnell was key to pushing through the federal "2014 Farm Bill," clearing the way for states to allow industrial hemp — and test the market to see if consumers would buy its products.
Kentucky then became one of the nation's top producers, but not just anyone can grow it. Agriculture officials must approve applications to grow or process the crop.
Kentucky has tweaked its program, which both McConnell and Quarles now tout as a "national model," including how it addresses concerns by law enforcement. Because its pungent pointy leaves so closely resemble marijuana, participants must register their GPS coordinates and allow inspections by law enforcement officials.
Loving, however, said hemp complicates the enforcement of marijuana.
"The only true way to make a distinction between the two plants is through laboratory testing," the veteran cop said.
McConnell and Quarles have long been hemp advocates, taking on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's stance that all of the crop's products, even chocolate hemp bark and hemp heart seeds, are illegal if they can be consumed. That's despite federal law limiting the amount of THC, the mind-altering ingredient in marijuana, to a non-intoxicating level.
Quarles fired off a letter to the head of the DEA in December asking for a meeting to discuss what he called "federal overreach."
"I was dumbfounded when I read a Louisville Courier-Journal[sic] article that was titled, 'Are you breaking the law when you buy hemp products?' " Quarles wrote, according to a copy of the letter.
"Consumable hemp products are legal to buy," Quarles wrote, countering what a DEA spokesman told Courier Journal.
And Politico magazine characterized McConnell's advocacy as a "love affair with hemp," calling him one of Washington's top drug policy reformers.
Local stores like Rainbow Blossom carry several types of hemp products, including oils made from the plant's flower that are viewed as alternative medicine for headaches and other pain. It also sells hemp seeds and foods made from the seeds, which are considered a super food. Most food products that come from the seed of the plant don't contain THC.
Some national food stores are waiting for the legalization of hemp before carrying the products for fear they will be removed from shelves, which nearly happened in Indiana. Kroger, however, is one chain that carries hemp hearts — which are non-intoxicating seeds.
Curtis Hill, Indiana's attorney general, issued an opinion Nov. 21 that cannabidiol oils — known as CBD oils — were illegal and should be pulled from shelves. But Gov. Eric Holcomb directed store owners across the state to pull the product within 60 days or state excise police could remove it. But Indiana lawmakers passed a bill, signed last week by Holcomb, that legalizes the oils as long as they follow federal guidelines to cap the THC amount at .03.
Follow Beth Warren on Twitter: @BethWarrenCJ