LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and Agriculture Commissioner James Comer pushed Thursday for industrial hemp production in Kentucky, announcing the reformation of a long idle commission that will press to lift federal restrictions on the plant that once was a major cash crop.
The relative newcomers to Kentucky politics are among a growing number of state leaders who have been openly promoting hemp, once a taboo subject in the Bible-belt state.
"We think it can be a great crop for Kentucky," Paul said at a news conference before the Kentucky Farm Bureau's annual country ham breakfast that brings together some of the biggest names in state politics, including Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
Paul, talking to reporters in a hemp shirt imported from Canada, is sponsoring legislation in the U.S. Senate that would lift the federal restrictions. Comer, who was elected agriculture commissioner last year, ran on the promise that he would press to allow Kentucky farmers to grow hemp.
Theirs is a stand that many political leaders shun because of fears that voters might somehow leap to the conclusion that they're also pro-marijuana.
Industrial hemp, a cousin to marijuana, is used to make textiles, paper, lotion, cosmetics and other products. Though it contains only small amounts of the mind-altering chemical tetrahydrocannabinol that makes marijuana intoxicating, it remains illegal in the U.S.
Kentucky has an ideal climate for hemp production and, during World War II, was a leading grower of the plant that produces strong fibers that was used in fabrics, ropes and other materials for the military. Comer said "politics and misinformation" is standing in the way of what could be a boon for Kentucky farmers.
"We're going to make Kentucky the epicenter of an industry that will create jobs for our people and jobs for our farmers," Comer said.
Katie Moyer, chairwoman of the Kentucky Hemp Coalition, said support for hemp is growing across the state and the nation. She said the push by Paul and Comer is evidence of that support.
Moyer said hemp promoters were thrilled to hear the announcement that the Kentucky Hemp Commission is being restarted.
"Hemp is a part of Kentucky history," Moyer said. "It was a crop that was a part of Kentucky's history even before tobacco."