Across Kentucky, people who have been denied permission to grow hemp have accused former Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer of refusing applications for political reasons – an allegation Comer has rejected.
David Barhorst, owner of Kentucky Hemp Ventures Inc., who said he was denied a memorandum of understanding to grow hemp, claims the hemp industry in Kentucky is actually under the control of behind-the-scenes individuals.
"Kentucky is in violation of national law and its own state law," he said. "In essence, the entire hemp industry is illegal in Kentucky."
Barhorst believes the Kentucky Department of Agriculture's Hemp Review Committee actually decides who gets the MOUs to grow hemp. So Barhorst and other members of Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative Association Inc., which provides help to partner-members seeking to grow hemp, tried to find out who was on the committee. Their attempts – which included filing open records requests that asked, among other things, for the names of the review committee's members and minutes from their meetings – yielded no results, he said.
"We have inquired, asked, prodded for months to find out who's on it," Barhorst said.
The Daily News filed an open records request with the KDA, seeking minutes from Hemp Review Committee meetings and a list of the group's members. Clint Quarles, an attorney for KDA, responded via email, stating that no such records exist.
Nicole Liberto, KDA's deputy general counsel, said decisions about who gets MOUs for growing hemp rests with KDA. The Hemp Review Committee helps KDA review applications for MOUs but is not officially chartered, she said.
"It's not any kind of established committee," she said.
Neither Liberto nor Ryan Quarles, the current commissioner of agriculture, would provide the names of any Hemp Review Committee members.
According to the Industrial Hemp Program's website, the Hemp Review Committee evaluates MOU applications and will "select certain projects for approval" but is not involved in follow-up inquiries. This group is not mentioned in Senate Bill 50, the state law that establishes state oversight of the industrial hemp program. Federally, Kentucky's industrial hemp program operates under the the Agricultural Act of 2014 – also known as the Farm Bill, which allowed states to implement hemp research programs.
According to KDA's website, SB 50's goal is "to help Kentucky move to the forefront of industrial hemp production and commercialization of hemp products." SB 50 says hemp licenses come from KDA, but doesn't indicate that any group within the department is responsible for approving or denying licenses.
Meanwhile, Barhorst believes Comer disbanded the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission, a group tasked with establishing a program to license Kentucky hemp growers and oversee a five-year hemp research program, in order for another group – the privately held and similarly named Kentucky Hemp Industry Council – to take control outside the view of the spotlight. The Industrial Hemp Commission has not published meeting records since May 2014, he said.
"What they did was a bait and switch," Barhorst said.
According to a complaint the Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative Association filed July 1 with Kathryn Gabhart, executive director of Kentucky's Executive Branch Ethics Commission, the Kentucky Hemp Industry Council was founded in April 2014, about a month before the Industrial Hemp Commission appears to have stopped meeting. In addition, Brian Furnish, who was a member of the Industrial Hemp Commission, was named president of the Hemp Industry Council, the complaint said.
"This is the group we think is behind everything," Barhorst said.
According to Comer, a Tompkinsville Republican who served as agriculture commissioner from 2012 to January and is currently running for the 1st Congressional District seat in the U.S. House, the Industrial Hemp Commission was disbanded because its main goal was educating the public on hemp while growing the crop was still illegal, as well as establishing a program to license hemp growers. Therefore, its work was complete, he said.
"Once the Farm Bill passed, it pretty much eliminated the need for a hemp commission," he said. "It's an obsolete commission."
Ryan Quarles, when asked if KDA is affiliated with the newer Hemp Industry Council, said: “We are evaluating the hemp program as a whole and coming up with a series of recommendations for the 2017 crop year, which would include organizations and those who have been interested in the reintroduction of the crop for years.” He would not comment directly on the council or its involvement in the state's hemp industry.
Jonathan Miller, a member of the Industrial Hemp Commission who now serves as legal counsel for the Hemp Industry Council, confirmed that Furnish is the council's president as well as an Industrial Hemp Commission member. Miller, an attorney with Frost Brown Todd in Lexington, declined to name any of the council's other members.
When active, the Industrial Hemp Commission's meetings mainly concerned the "direction of the industry," Miller said, adding that the responsibility of steering the industry now belongs to KDA. The Hemp Industry Council is a lobbying group whose main focus has been urging Congress to exclude industrial hemp from the Drug Enforcement Administration's drug schedule, he said.
According to the Kentucky Secretary of State website, Kentucky Hemp Industry Council Inc. is registered as a nonprofit organization with an office at 250 W. Main St. in Lexington – the same address as a Frost Brown Todd office. The site lists Furnish as president, Dan Caudill as vice president, Steve Bevan as secretary and Josh Hendrix as treasurer.
Furnish did not return phone messages seeking comment.
Bevan, chief operating officer of GenCanna Global, a Winchester-based company originally from Canada that's partnered with six local farms to grow hemp, according to Newsweek, directed all questions about the council to Miller. Hendrix, who works with Las Vegas-based pharmaceutical company CV Sciences, said the council has no connection to the Industrial Hemp Commission.
Caudill, co-owner of Louisville's Caudill Seed, did not return messages seeking comment. But Carl Gering, the company's safety and security director, reached out to the Daily News, saying Comer invited Caudill to be part of the Hemp Industry Council. Gering said the council has been involved with promoting the industry and making sure people know the difference between industrial hemp and recreational marijuana.
The group has no involvement with MOUs, Gering said.
Hemp in Kentucky
In 2011, when Comer was running for agriculture commissioner, his campaign was built partly on reviving industrial hemp, which was once widely grown in Kentucky, he said. Liberals and conservatives alike met this idea with enthusiasm, he said.
During his campaign, Comer educated the public on hemp, making sure people knew the difference between hemp and marijuana. Hemp's genetic relationship to marijuana has been largely responsible for the illegality of hemp, Comer said.
Cannabis – including both hemp and marijuana – is classified as a Schedule I drug, according to a DEA website. Schedule I also includes heroin, ecstasy and LSD and is a tier reserved for "drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," the website said.
According to the KDA website, hemp contains low volumes of tetrahydrocannabinol, marijuana's primary psychoactive chemical. The website also said hemp can be used in the production of numerous goods, including textiles, carpeting, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
The Kentucky General Assembly passed SB 50 in 2013 but had to wait a year for the passage of the Farm Bill in 2014 to begin the industrial hemp program.
The Farm Bill's section governing hemp is brief, saying that "an institution of higher education or a state department of agriculture" is authorized to grow and cultivate industrial hemp for research purposes "under an agricultural pilot program or other agricultural or academic research" and if state law allows it.
The application period for would-be hemp growers comes once a year. The first application cycle during Ryan Quarles' tenure will open in the fall, according to the KDA website, though no specific date is given.
Complaints and responses
Roger Ford, CEO of Patriot Bioenergy Corp., was also denied an MOU during Comer's term as commissioner.
"They said we didn't have enough growing experience even though we have several people who have farming experience and farming equipment," he said.
Ford said he thinks the fact that Patriot operates out of a Democratic-leaning district was a factor in the denial of the company's application.
Patriot is located in Pikeville, a part of state House District 94, represented by Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville.
Kathe Andrews, a horticulture scientist whose application for a hemp MOU was denied, said people with far less experience than her have received MOUs from KDA.
"We had everything all set up and they just didn't give us any reason why they turned us down," she said. "It was kind of a shock to me. It seemed like it was already decided."
Because of KDA's practices, many skilled growers could be forced to leave the state in order to do hemp research, she said.
Andrews and Ford are both members of KHGCA.
According to the group's ethics complaint, Comer awarded MOUs to registered Republicans and political supporters "exclusively" and excluded or restricted the issuance of MOUs to people or groups who were registered Democrats, were not allied with Comer or were in districts controlled by officials politically opposed to him.
The complaint also argues that Kentucky's hemp industry violates the Farm Bill, which gives permission to grow hemp to state departments of agriculture and universities, not individual producers or unaffiliated companies.
Miller, the Hemp Industry Council's legal counsel, who described himself as a Democrat, rejected the notion that Comer or any group inside KDA has denied applications based purely on political reasons.
"Both Commissioner Comer and Commissioner Ryan Quarles are running this in a very nonpartisan way," he said.
Comer also denied the accusations. "I had no say in who got applications and who didn't," he said.
Those who claim KDA's denials are politically based are probably upset their own applications weren't up to snuff, Comer said, adding that there are numerous reasons an MOU might be denied.
Because the state's hemp industry is a pilot program, potential hemp-growing operations must be allied in some way with a university for research purposes, he said.
"If no university wants to fool with you, there's not much the Department of Agriculture can do," Comer said.
Numerous individuals and companies have partnered with universities, potentially leaving some schools overburdened and unwilling to take on more partnerships for hemp research, he said.
Neither the Farm Bill nor SB 50 nor any application available on KDA's website includes language requiring growers to be aligned with a university.
David Williams, director of the University of Kentucky's Robinson Center for Appalachian Resource Sustainability, which is conducting hemp research under KDA's program, said the school is not working with any outside hemp growers. Williams also said KDA's program does not ask would-be growers to partner with any university.
"It's not required at all," he said.
Comer said limiting the number of people growing hemp is detrimental to the progress of Kentucky's hemp pilot program. He said it's been exciting to watch Kentucky's hemp industry grow.
"We've come a long way in two years and what we're proving is that it's not a drug and it's economically viable," Comer said.
Hemp has the potential to greatly diversify the state's agricultural economy and has already proven lucrative for a number of the farmers involved with its production, Comer said.
"Hemp will never be what tobacco was for Kentucky, but it will be another tool in the toolbox," he said. "My goal on day one and my goal today is for Congress to pass a bill that deregulates hemp."
Ryan Quarles said the crop, though still in an experimental stage, can provide a great deal of economic development in the state.
"There's intense interest in the crop. We have people contact our office every week, wanting to invest in Kentucky," he said. "We're very excited to see people from across the nation look towards Kentucky as the leader with industrial hemp."
— Follow Daily News reporter Jackson French on Twitter @Jackson_French or visit bgdailynews.com.
•Editor's note – The initially published version of this story did not adequately describe the laws governing Kentucky's industrial hemp industry. The federal Agricultural Act of 2014, also known as the Farm Bill, gives state departments of agriculture and institutes of higher learning the authority to grow industrial hemp for research purposes. But the Farm Bill does not dictate how a state should operate its hemp program. In instances in which a state law regarding hemp conflicts with the Farm Bill, the Farm Bill supersedes state law. The story has been updated to reflect the accurate information.