Tuesday marked a milestone for proponents of growing industrial hemp in Kansas.
A bill that passed the Senate 36-3 on Feb. 22 made it out of the Kansas House Agriculture Committee Tuesday afternoon and is headed to an eventual vote by the full House, possibly next week.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Kyle Hoffman, R-Coldwater, counts himself among those who have learned about hemp over the years; it has appeared in legislation and he has moved from being an opponent to a supporter of this bill.
Senate Bill 263 is more narrowly written than some previous bills.
First, what it is not:
• It does not legalize marijuana.
• It does not address medical marijuana.
• It does not permit any farmer to simply start growing industrial hemp.
What it does:
• It follows the federal law and the 2014 Farm Bill that allows for growing industrial hemp under the auspices of research.
• It allows the Kansas Department of Agriculture to grow and cultivate industrial hemp and promote the research and development of industrial hemp. The Department can do this in coordination with state institutions of higher education. Hoffman anticipates Pittsburg State University, with its Kansas Polymer Research Center, and Fort Hays State University and Kansas State University could be interested. If no colleges express interest, the Department of Agriculture could rely on expertise from an advisory board. That would enable the Department to get input without hiring staff.
• The Department of Agriculture could establish a pilot program in Russell County - where there is an industrical hemp advocacy group - as well as in other counties, for the purposes of industrial hemp economic development and market research of industrial hemp products.
• The Department of Agriculture would issue licenses to participants and maintain oversight. Participants would have to agree to submit fingerprints and undergo a criminal history check by law enforcement.
• Annual reports would be made to the Legislature, and in three years, the program would be revisited.
Among lawmakers who testified for Senate, Bill 263 were House Taxation Committee Chairman Steven Johnson, R-Assaria, and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill.
"I’ve been preaching this for approximately four years," said State Rep. Willie Dove, R-Bonner Springs, when he addressed the House Agriculture Committee March 14.
Also testifying at the March 14 House hearing were the Kansas Department of Agriculture — for it — and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation — neutral.
The lone bill opponent testifying before the committee was Reno County resident Rock Gagnebin, who thought the bill was too restrictive.
On Tuesday, the only member of the House Agriculture Committee recording a "no" vote was State Rep. Ronald Ellis, R-Meriden, who consistently has voted no on hemp.
Different this year
"I think the biggest difference," said Hoffman, was that this hemp bill started in the Senate.
The Senate has always been concerned about law enforcement’s view and some bills have been "Christmas tree’d up" with medical marijuana language and other provisions, Hoffman said.
The KBI had input on the language in Senate Bill 263.
The Senate bill was changed on the Senate floor and again in the House committee. It could undergo more changes in House floor debate. Because the bill is different than the version approved by the Senate, the Senate will have to give its blessing. Hoffman sounded hopeful that differences ultimately can be ironed out in a Senate-House conference committee. If the bill remains narrowly focused, he expects Gov. Jeff Colyer will sign it.
By the time the program is revisited, Hoffman thinks the industrial hemp outlook in Kansas will be clearer.
It will be considered either unfeasible because there is not the accessible market for the crop, or it will be seen as a good alternative for wheat. Wheat is relatively drought-resistant and an industrial hemp crop uses an equivalent amount of water.
"I can see it replacing wheat in some parts of the state," Hoffman said. But Hoffman thinks the big question mark is the market and he sounds a note of caution. "I want to be careful that we don’t sell this an alternative crop," he said, only to have farmers make an investment to plant a crop they can’t market.
"I hope it’s the commodity that everyone thinks it’s going to be," he said.
Passage of the bill came on the last day the House Agriculture Committee will meet this year. With elections this fall and new committee assignments handed out afterward, this could be the last Agriculture Committee meeting for some members.
The treat at the end of the meeting was brownies.