Comer takes hemp to the hill

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By Brad Bowman

After a three-day blitz on Washington, D.C., this month, James Comer, Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture, felt assured industrial hemp had enough support for legalization.

Jonathan Miller, member of the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission, former state treasurer and deputy political director for the Clinton/Gore 1992 presidential campaign, traveled with Comer and State Sen. Paul Hornback for nonpartisan talks.

“We met with everyone in the White House from the chief of staff to the janitor,” Comer joked. “We met with high profile people in the Obama administration, the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, Rural Development and the Department of Energy. The only department we didn’t meet with was the DEA.”

Comer said his delegation came from a different perspective making his mission and company well received.

“Speaker of the House John Boehner was very familiar with the issue and was very happy about our angle,” Comer said. “He said in the past the people pushing for the hemp issue were radical members on the far left or right like (Kentucky Senator Rand Paul). He looked at me as a guy who is representing farmers, a red state and we came at it from the angle as this is a job creator.”

The delegation met with U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Paul on different strategies to make hemp legislation a reality for Kentucky.

“You’ve got three basic strategies to make this happen,” Comer said. “It can be done by executive order from the Obama Administration, people in the administration were open to it so that would be a no-brainer, pass standalone legislation or amend the farm bill.”

According to Comer, there were weaknesses to each strategy. An executive order could be struck down by the next administration, the farm bill may not pass due to the controversial issues in it like food stamps and other government funded programs, and standalone legislation for hemp wouldn’t be heard under the agriculture committee.

“Hemp should be classified under the Department of Agriculture like corn, soy and wheat is,” Comer said. “The problem is that it would be assigned under the judicial committee. I think we all agree that Congress is borderline dysfunctional right now and issues like gun control and immigration reform will absorb a lot of the judicial committees’ time.”

According to Comer, Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, supported his efforts to legalize industrial hemp and has been aware of the issue since serving as the governor of Iowa.

“The support is there, we just have to get it to the floor to be heard,” Comer said. “I heard even Nancy Pelosi supports it. This is truly a nonpartisan issue. People who haven’t agreed together on anything in the past are for this. I thought these people would think I was crazy, but I am energized. This is something we could do without any controversy.”

The next step for Comer is to wait and monitor what happens in the federal government regarding the farm bill. He has assembled an all-star committee ready to present and answer any questions.

“I am available to answer any questions for Sen. (Patrick) Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, from Vermont, if they wanted to hear testimony on the bill,” Comer said. “Jim Woolsey came to testify in Frankfort and he was head of the CIA. We will continue to push for a committee meeting or wait to see what happens with the farm bill.”

Comer emphasized that the bill would need to pass by Christmas so the hemp markets could be put in place and farmers could have access to seed.

“I told them we needed it before Christmas — Thanksgiving would be ideal,” Comer said. “Farmers would want to plant hemp right now. They need to be ready to go with contracts in January and they need to see the market where they can sell it. Caudill Seed has been working with companies in Europe, Canada and China. Getting the seed will be a challenge from high demand throughout the world. They’ve got to get this finished by Christmas.”

Comer anticipated needing to educate officials in Washington, D.C., on the viability of hemp, but Comer was pleasantly surprised.

“Everyone was already aware of the many uses for hemp and that we were one of the only countries in the world not producing or processing it here,” Comer said. “This is about making jobs and economic development.”