In industrial hemp, the state of Rand Paul and Wendell Berry sees a solution to its post-agrarian ills
November 12, 2014 5:00AM ET
Mike Lewis, a farmer who employs veterans on his farm, was recruited by Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer to join the state’s hemp crusade.
MOUNT VERNON, Ky. — Mike Lewis doesn’t want to talk about marijuana. He is an organic farmer, the son of a retired federal agent, and he follows the law.
"If you’re gonna talk about drugs, you’re going to have to leave my property," he said to the group of entrepreneurs and activists who had traveled to central Kentucky to see his farm, one of the few legal, private hemp operations in the country. The threat sounded serious, and with it, Lewis had everyone’s attention. "We’re here today to talk about building an industry."
The most progressive cannabis program in the United States won’t get anyone stoned. But while officials in Colorado and Washington state await the results (and reap millions in taxes) of their drug-legalization experiments, conservative Kentucky has launched an ambitious and industrious project devoted to the ancient, controversial plants. Marijuana remains illegal here, but with industrial hemp, a non-psychoactive cannabis varietal with dozens of commercial uses, the state sees a different kind of salvation, an old-fashioned agrarian answer to a variety of 21st-century American ills.
Seven university-affiliated grow sites in the state, spread from the Mississippi valley in the west to the Appalachian east, are researching hemp’s potentials. Eastern Kentucky University is studying bio-fuels. Manufacturers are talking up hemp-based car parts and hempcrete, a biodegradable construction material. Bio-chemical engineers in Louisville will test the plant’s capacity to remediate the city’s toxic dumps. In struggling Appalachia, where thousands of families were wiped out when the federal government ended its tobacco subsidies, small farmers are wondering whether hemp can fill an economic vacuum. Wherever Kentucky has a problem, it seems industrial hemp has an answer.
The initiative was launched by the state’s agriculture commissioner, Republican James Comer, who ran for the office (an influential position in a predominately rural state), largely on his hemp visions.
"We thought he was crazy," recalled Holly Harris, who served as general counsel for the state GOP during Comer’s 2011 campaign. "The party chatter was, ‘This guy is crazy.’" But after Comer won that race — the only Kentucky Republican elected to statewide office that year — Harris was hired as his chief of staff and witnessed what she described as the most wild and memorable political experience of her career.
The conventional wisdom was that hemp was a political nonstarter, a fringe concern better fit for liberal states like Colorado or Washington, where marijuana prohibition was already being phased out. The conservative-led coalition that gathered around Comer’s agenda destroyed those assumptions. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul was instrumental, recruiting a delegation to testify in support of the state’s legalization measure; the group included Louisville Democrat John Yarmuth, libertarian conservative Thomas Massie and former Central Intelligence Agency director James Woolsey. When Paul spoke at the hearing on Senate Bill 50, he wore his favorite button-down hemp shirt. In Washington, then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, also of Kentucky, amended the 2014 farm bill to permit the plan under federal law. As the legal and political hurdles fell, Comer revived the long-moribund state Industrial Hemp Commission, a committee of stakeholders and experts responsible for getting the industry off the ground. Funding arrived from RandPAC (Paul’s political action committee) on the right, and from a standard hippie culture staple, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. The two organizations provide the entirety of the commission’s budget.
Kentucky is not entirely alone in the legalization movement. Lawmakers in many rural states are frustrated by the fact that, while it’s perfectly legal to sell hemp products made in other countries, federal law denies independent farmers the right to grown their own. In recent years, more than a dozen states have passed legislation that, to varying degrees, allows colleges, universities, and state agriculture agencies to research, grow and market the plant. Comer, however, took the additional step of licensing farmers like Lewis as state contractors, something no other state has done. In Colorado, farmers are allowed to grow the crop, but “it’s more like don’t ask don’t tell,” said Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, the industries chief lobbying group. Kentucky, he said, “pushed the envelope and are letting farmers do commercial activity as research.”
It’s been less than five months since Lewis planted his first seeds, and he said that he is currently in talks with more than a dozen manufacturing companies interested in processing hemp for a dizzying range of commercial and industrial applications, including health supplements, building insulation and bedding for Kentucky thoroughbreds. He said that a plastics company, which did not want to be named, is interested in processing hemp fibers into durable car paneling, a practice that European automakers have been using for years.
"We saw there is real opportunity," Lewis said. "We want to work with these people to create products, to drive dollars into the local economy." At this point, with so much energy and promise, Lewis "suffers from the oppression of opportunity." His biggest problem, he said, "is managing expectations."