McConnell pledges to help Kentucky hemp industry clear the 'glitches'

In January, as a shipment of 18,000 pounds of Kentucky industrial hemp made its way to Colorado for processing, police in Oklahoma arrested the rig drivers and two more men escorting them — and exposed one of the big problems facing hemp growers nationwide.

Police and investigators in many states still are baffled, and suspicious, that a crop that looks and smells identical to marijuana is actually legal and can be shipped across state lines.

The incident this year, and other arrests in Idaho targeting hemp from Oregon, was mentioned prominently during a hemp forum Monday morning led by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and attended by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and USDA Under Secretary Greg Ibach. The forum focused on development of federal regulations to implement the 2018 Farm Bill.

Congress legalized hemp, giving a huge boost to a booming industry that's seeing the popularity of products made with CBD, a compound derived from hemp, surge dramatically in recent years.

But the USDA still must write regulations that would be applied nationwide.

The issue with truckers remains a stumbling block, though, as there's no quick way to snip a sample and measure the tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, in plants.

Marijuana, still illegal under federal law despite a patchwork of legislation in several states, has enough THC to get a user high. Hemp, at 0.3 percent or less under U.S. government standards, does not, but the similar smell gets a rise out of drug-sniffing dogs.

Hemp growers, processors and investors also have been frustrated that banks won't loan money for crops, credit-card processors won't handle transactions for hemp products, such as soaps and chocolate, and that there's still no crop insurance program in place to help farmers.

"We're in the red zone, but there are some glitches," McConnell told about 100 farmers, processors, researchers and business people who attended the event at the Kentucky Exposition Center.

"Some of it may require legislation. If it does, I'll be there to do it," McConnell said during a brief press conference.

Kentucky's industrial hemp program, which started with a few dozen acres six years ago, is considered a national model. It's created 450 full-time jobs, with 42,086 acres of grain, fiber and oil-extraction plants for this season.

The University of Kentucky and other universities have launched research projects to accelerate development of herbicides and conduct quicker tests for levels of THC. One research project underway at the University of Louisville's Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research uses resins with hemp seed oil for 3-D printing.

Meanwhile, Kentucky growers and regulators need a stable source of genetics (seeds and plant starts) that don't carry the risk of exceeding the legal 0.3 percent threshold for hemp. They also need consistent ways to sample plants and a "gadget" police could use to test plants on the spot to see if they're legal hemp or illegal marijuana, Doris Hamilton, hemp program manager with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, told the group.

Federal authorities should create a standard protocol for transporting hemp across state lines, Hamilton said.

The USDA is expecting to visit several states that have invested in hemp to listen to farmers, processors and business people to craft its regulations in time for the 2020 growing season.

Even though the industry is well out of the blocks and gaining strength, the USDA's Risk Management Agency, which is in charge of writing the rules for crop insurance, is still trying to find a sound way to underwrite hemp crops that's fair to growers and responsible to U.S. taxpayers, agency administrator Martin Barbre said.

"We don't have enough data right now," he said.