Wearing a shirt made of hemp that he bought online from Canada, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul joined state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer on Thursday in calling for legalizing industrial hemp.
During a news conference before the 49th annual Kentucky Farm Bureau Country Ham Breakfast at the State Fair, Paul and Comer said allowing farmers to grow industrial hemp would be a financial boon for Kentucky.
They said it could be used for a variety of products, including paper and livestock bedding, particularly in the horse industry.
Comer said he is reviving the decade-old Industrial Hemp Commission in an effort to lift restrictions on the plant and that its chairman, former state Rep. Joe Barrows, D-Versailles, has agreed to step aside and let Comer chair the group.
Paul, R-Bowling Green, said industrial hemp is legal in most industrialized nations.
"If Kentucky were to legalize it, then Kentucky would be at a competitive advantage," Paul said. Comer said he wants to make Kentucky "the epicenter" of industrial hemp production.
The biggest obstacle to industrial hemp has been law-enforcement officials.
The Kentucky Sheriff's Association has opposed legalizing industrial hemp in the past but has not taken a position on the issue for Kentucky's 2013 General Assembly, said its executive director, Jerry Wagner of Ewing.
Wagner said that sheriffs have not been trained to distinguish between industrial hemp and marijuana and that they are concerned that allowing the growth of industrial hemp could lead to more marijuana.
Paul and Comer said proper regulation of permits to grow industrial hemp would address that concern.
Joining Paul and Comer at the news conference to show bipartisan support for industrial hemp were state Sens. Joey Pendleton, D-Hopkinsville; Dan Seum, R-Louisville; and Robin Webb, D-Grayson.
Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear said he is "open to the idea of industrial hemp, but I know law enforcement has some very serious concerns about the similarity to marijuana and what it might do to their enforcement actions."
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said the issue has not met with success in the state legislature, but "it is probably something we can take a look at."
Katie Moyer, chairman of the Kentucky Hemp Coalition from Hopkinsville, said the issue "has picked up a lot of steam in the last few years — both on the state and federal levels. We see the tide turning for it."
More than 1,800 people attended the breakfast, which featured speeches by Paul, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Beshear.
Beshear advocated congressional passage of a farm bill to provide financial relief for farmers in disasters, including this year's drought.
Beshear accused members of Congress of not working together.
McConnell said he wants a farm bill, but not one like the Senate approved earlier this year, which was 80 percent related to food stamps.
Paul's comments focused on the federal deficit, improving infrastructure and the need for more time for legislators to read and study bills before voting on them.
Beshear said before the breakfast that he expects to name a chief of staff within 10 days to replace Mike Haydon, who died unexpectedly earlier this month.