LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- Efforts to re-establish industrial hemp in the state where it once flourished won support Thursday from U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said its legalization would benefit farmers and produce jobs to convert the plants into products.
Hemp supporters trumpeted the timely thumbs-up from Kentucky's most powerful Republican. It comes amid a lobbying campaign by hemp backers and detractors before state lawmakers resume their regular 2013 session next week in Frankfort.
"I am convinced that allowing its production will be a positive development for Kentucky's farm families and economy," McConnell said in a statement. "The utilization of hemp to produce everything from clothing to paper is real and if there is a capacity to center a new domestic industry in Kentucky that will create jobs in these difficult economic times, that sounds like a good thing to me."
The Kentucky Senate Agriculture Committee is scheduled to review legislation Feb. 11 to strictly regulate industrial hemp production in the Bluegrass state if the federal government lifts its decades-long ban on the crop.
A spokesman for McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, said he supports a "federal solution" to re-establish hemp and is discussing the best strategy with fellow Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and others.
Paul has pushed for federal legislation to lift restrictions on hemp. Another option is to seek a federal waiver allowing Kentucky to grow the crop. McConnell said he took his pro-hemp stand after discussions with Paul and state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who has championed the cause and revived a hemp commission.
Comer, a Republican, said Thursday that McConnell's support "adds immeasurable strength" to the campaign.
Kentucky once was a leading producer of industrial hemp, a tall, leafy plant that thrived in the state's climate and soils. During World War II, the U.S. government encouraged farmers to grow hemp for the war effort because other industrial fibers were in short supply.
But 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. Hemp and marijuana are the same species, cannabis sativa, but are genetically distinct. Hemp has a negligible content of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.
Hemp can be turned into paper, clothing, food, biofuels, auto parts, lotions and other products.
U.S. retail sales of hemp products exceeded $400 million last year, according to industry estimates. At least 30 countries produce hemp commercially, and most of the hemp imported into the U.S. is grown in China, Canada and Europe.
Hemp supporters in Kentucky see an opportunity to make the state a hub for production and processing, if the state acts quickly.
But the campaign to reintroduce hemp has drawn opposition from some law enforcement groups, led by Kentucky State Police.
State police Commissioner Rodney Brewer attended a hemp commission meeting late last year, and said he was concerned that law enforcement would have a hard time distinguishing between hemp and marijuana.
McConnell said Thursday that he was assured by Comer that the agriculture department would pursue production "in a way that does not compromise Kentucky law enforcement's marijuana eradication efforts or in any way promote illegal drug use."
But opponents worry that marijuana growers would use hemp fields to conceal pot plants.
"It would be very enticing for someone to obtain a license to grow hemp, then divert a small part of their fields to growing illegal marijuana," Jere Hopson, director of the South Central Kentucky Drug Task Force, said this week. "Law enforcement wouldn't be able to tell the difference without testing, and how would you even know which plants to test?"
Hemp supporters counter that marijuana growers don't want their plants anywhere near hemp fields because cross-pollination means less potency.
Another hemp critic, Clay County Sheriff Kevin Johnson, questions the demand for hemp.
"If there was a huge market for hemp, there would be lobbyists sitting in Washington trying to get this legalized on a national level," he said.
State Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, said his bill to regulate hemp production has safeguards to make sure "it's run right." Under his bill, the state agriculture department would license growers and production would be subject to inspection. Growers would undergo criminal background checks and give GPS coordinates for their fields.
Comer has said hemp's reintroduction in Kentucky hinges on federal approval of the crop.
Hornback has scheduled a hearing on his bill for Feb. 11 and said he intends to call for a committee vote on the measure then.
Comer said U.S. Reps. John Yarmuth and Thomas Massie of Kentucky are expected to testify for measure, along with Paul.