I remember when the late Lexington attorney Gatewood Galbraith made his first run for statewide office in 1983.
He ran for agriculture commissioner on a platform based largely on legalizing the growing of industrial hemp in the commonwealth. Not surprisingly, he was dismissed as a kook and placed dead last in a four-candidate Democratic primary with only 12 percent of the vote.
The fact that Kentucky’s current agriculture, James Comer, is touting the exact same idea 30 years later as a potential savior of the state’s farm economy — and is being taken quite seriously — proves Galbraith was a true visionary and a man ahead of his time.
The fact is, hemp-growing never should have been outlawed in the first place. Galbraith — who died a year ago last month and whom I had the pleasure of interviewing several times when he was running for office — once told me it was no coincidence the laws against it went into effect the same year nylon was patented. I’ve never been much of a conspiracy buff, but something about that statement always stuck with me.
Hemp is one of the most useful substances on Earth. It can be used to make a wide array of products, from fuels to clothing to paper. Comer, who recently reactivated the long-dormant Kentucky Hemp Commission, calls it “a sustainable, greener crop,” and he’s 100 percent correct. Kentucky’s soil and climate are perfectly suited to growing it, too.
So why is hemp-growing illegal? Because hemp plants are similar in appearance to marijuana plants. Hemp and marijuana are biological cousins, even though hemp contains only trace amounts of THC, the chemical in pot that produces the effects, or “high,” in the user.
In other words, the only way you’re going to catch a buzz from hemp is by smoking a whole bale of that cheese.
Of course, the major obstacle to hemp being a viable cash crop for Kentucky is that growing it is against federal law. However, Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. John Yarmuth, who don’t agree on much else politically, have both said they will lobby the Obama administration to give the commonwealth a waiver that would allow the plant to be grown here if the state legislature passes a bill setting up regulations.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, law enforcement isn’t keen on the whole idea.
Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer told the commission last week that legalizing hemp would create problems for police because “it is impossible to distinguish between hemp and marijuana with the naked eye,” and marijuana could be grown among hemp plants, making them undetectable to law enforcement.
Of course, I think the ideal solution to that conundrum would be to legalize the growing of both hemp and marijuana, thus relieving the KSP and other police agencies of their mandate to waste their precious time and resources ferreting out plants of any kind. But, I digress.
Brewer also argued that hemp legalization had the potential to be costly for law enforcement because people charged with marijuana possession could claim they had hemp and only expensive chemical testing would be able to determine the difference.
That seems a bit far-fetched to me. Remember, hemp isn’t psychoactive, so what possible use would any self-respecting pot user have for it, especially seeing as how marijuana, while illegal, is readily and easily obtainable? Doesn’t that kind of cut the legs out from under that defense?
And, with all due respect to Brewer and the KSP, I think Hemp Commission member Jim Higdon had it right when he said the the agency has a pretty stong motive for opposing hemp legalization — mainly, the federal dollars the agency receives for marijuana eradication.
The loss of burley tobacco as a cash crop was devastating to Kentucky, and to our area. The sight of tobacco fields stretching nearly end to end along rural highways is but a distant memory.
Seeing those one day replaced by fields of hemp would be a gorgeous sight — one that would no doubt have Gatewood Galbraith, wherever he is, beaming and saying “I told you so.”
KENNETH HART can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2654.