FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Farmers received a warning Wednesday that if they plant industrial hemp in Kentucky next spring they’ll be violating federal law and could be criminally prosecuted.
Attorney General Jack Conway issued an advisory letter to Kentucky leaders that growing hemp remains illegal in Kentucky, despite declarations by Agriculture Commissioner James Comer that the plant can now be legally grown in the state. Comer argues that Kentucky law allows the crop and that the federal government doesn’t plan to prosecute to enforce its law.
“That’s not the state of the law, and anyone who is saying otherwise is acting irresponsibly,” Conway told reporters Wednesday afternoon. “Anyone who is saying otherwise is getting the hopes up for farmers when they’re still exposed to potential financial and criminal liability.”
Conway, a Democrat, issued the advisory to State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer, Gov. Steve Beshear, Comer and others, largely to protect farmers who might mistakenly believe it’s OK to grow the plant.
Once politically taboo, growing hemp has become an increasingly popular idea among Kentucky’s elected leaders. Kentucky lawmakers passed legislation earlier this year that would allow farmers to grow the crop if the federal government ever lifts a longstanding ban. Conway said in the advisory letter that the ban remains firmly in place.
Hemp thrived in Kentucky for generations, but was banned decades ago when the federal government classified it as a controlled substance.
Comer, a Republican, contends that industrial hemp could be an economic boon for Kentucky. Besides creating another crop for the state’s farmers, he insists hemp could lead to manufacturing jobs in factories that could use the plant to produce biofuel, paper, even cosmetics.
Comer sternly disagreed with Conway’s legal interpretation and accused the attorney general of “threatening” Kentucky farmers.
“Hemp is legal in Kentucky, and the federal government has made it clear that it is not going to prosecute farmers for growing hemp,” Comer asserted. “It makes no sense that Attorney General Conway would throw up an unnecessary government obstacle to an industry that has the potential to create jobs and revenue for Kentucky.”
Comer said the Department of Justice’s decision to respect laws governing marijuana production in states where it is legal strengthens his position that Kentucky should move ahead with hemp production.
“I’m disappointed to see that Attorney General Conway has chosen to play politics with this issue,” Comer said in a statement. “We should be doing everything we can to create new sources of revenue for Kentucky farmers and new jobs for Kentuckians who need work.”
Hemp and marijuana share the same species — cannabis sativa — but hemp has a negligible content of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana. Under federal law, all cannabis plants fall under the marijuana label, regardless of THC content.
Other state leaders, including Beshear, weighed in on Conway’s conclusion.
“The attorney general’s interpretation of the federal law is consistent with our understanding,” said Beshear, a Democrat. “It’s clear that a formal change in the federal law is needed before our farm families can reasonably consider growing this crop. Our new state law means Kentucky farmers are positioned to respond immediately when and if that change occurs, putting them ahead of other states without similar legislation.”