FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) -- A Kentucky Senate committee approved legislation Monday to regulate industrial hemp production if the now-illegal crop gains a federal reprieve, a step encouraged by supporters led by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and former CIA director James Woolsey.
Supporters appearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee touted hemp's potential as an alternative crop for farmers and as a job creator in processing the crop and turning it into a range of products that include paper, clothing, auto parts, biofuels, food and lotions.
Kentucky once was a leading producer of industrial hemp, a tall, leafy plant the government once encouraged farmers to growing during World War II when other industrial fibers were in short supply. Bu the crop hasn't been grown in the U.S. for decades, since the federal government moved to classify hemp as a controlled substance related to marijuana.
"I'm not up here saying this is the panacea that next year everybody is going to work for a hemp farmer," said Paul, a Kentucky Republican who wore a shirt made of hemp material. "But why not legalize something that could produce jobs and probably will."
Woolsey said he became a hemp advocate because of the crop's potential to boost rural economies. Other hemp supporters who promoted the crop during the committee hearing were U.S. Reps. John Yarmuth and Thomas Massie of Kentucky. U.S. retail sales of hemp products exceed $400 million per year. Dozens of countries produce hemp commercially, and most of the hemp imported into the U.S. is grown in Canada, China and Europe.
The bill won unanimous committee approval despite the continued concerns of Kentucky State Police, the state's leading law enforcement agency.
State police Commissioner Rodney Brewer said his main concern was the inability of law enforcement to detect the difference between hemp and marijuana, its much more potent relative. Hemp has a negligible content of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.
"They are identical in appearance when it comes to the naked eye," Brewer said. "Science tells us that the only way to fully identify the difference between a hemp plant with low THC level and a marijuana plant with a much higher THC level is through laboratory testing."
That testing is costly, he said, and would add to the work load for police labs when someone charged with marijuana possession claims they were caught with hemp. Committee chairman Paul Hornback, the bill's lead sponsor, said he tried alleviate those concerns by limiting the transportation of hemp to those who have certification papers.
Under the bill, the state agriculture department would license hemp growers and production would be subject to inspection. Growers would undergo criminal background checks. A production license would be valid for one year and a grower would be limited to 10 acres for each license.
State Agriculture Commissioner James Comer has championed the cause of reviving industrial hemp. But Comer and other supporters said hemp's reintroduction in Kentucky hinges on federal approval of the crop.
Bills pending in Congress would remove the federal restrictions on hemp production. Paul is a leading sponsor of the Senate legislation, and Massie is a primary sponsor of a House bill. Paul said he also would push for a federal waiver to allow hemp production in Kentucky if the legislation stalls.
The debate during the committee hearing revolved around law enforcement concerns that marijuana growers would try to infiltrate hemp fields to secretly grow pot.
Woolsey dismissed such worries, saying someone would try to mingle hemp and marijuana "only if he knows nothing about botony." The hemp plants would greatly dilute the potency of the marijuana, he said. He said that marijuana growers have not infiltrated hemp fields in the dozens of countries that allow hemp production.
Woolsey also downplayed concerns that people could get high off hemp. With its negligible amount of THC, he likened trying to get high off hemp to trying to get drunk on non-alcoholic beer.
The bill now heads to the full Senate, but a couple of the chamber's Republicans leaders didn't say when the measure will be debated and voted on.
"I think it has a real good shot in the Senate," said Sen. Dan Seum of Louisville, the chamber's GOP caucus chairman.
The bill's prospects in the Democratic-led House are less certain.