FRANKFORT - As Kentucky embraces marijuana's less potent cousin, hemp, cannabis supporters hope to use that momentum to push lawmakers to legalize medical marijuana.
State lawmakers on Wednesday held their second public hearing this year on the subject, taking testimony from a quadriplegic who said marijuana eases his pain and treats his glaucoma. And lawmakers are planning at least two more public hearings this summer, including one before the Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection committee that will focus on marijuana's effectiveness in treating post-traumatic stress disorder with soldiers.
The hearings come as Kentucky officials on all levels slowly embrace the cannabis plant. Farmers in western Kentucky will harvest their first hemp crop in decades this fall after a 2013 law legalized it in Kentucky and the 2014 farm bill cleared the last federal obstacle with the help of Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul.
And doctors at the Universities of Kentucky and Louisville are using oil from hemp to develop treatments for seizures in children after state lawmakers legalized cannabidiol earlier this year.
It isn't just medical research that is fueling this resurgence, but the opportunity for a state still reeling from declines in the tobacco and coal industries.
"It's way past time for people to stop being afraid of this plant," said Katie Moyer, a member of the Kentucky Hemp Commission who is working with western Kentucky farmers on their hemp crops. "People just have to stop thinking of it as a danger and start looking at it like a tree."
Moyer's farmers have planted just 1.2 acres this year, but they have already found a buyer for the entire crop: a company that makes hempcrete, a building material similar to concrete that is made using hemp hurds, or stalks.
And Gradient Engineering, a Montana-based engineering firm seeking to expand its product line, is preparing to move to Kentucky to take advantage of the state's burgeoning hemp industry.
"The crop that went into the ground in Kentucky to my knowledge is the only industrial hemp crop in the nation sanctioned by the federal government right now," said Trey Riddle, Gradient Engineering's CEO. "We want to get on the ground floor in Kentucky and be part of this project."
The hemp industry has found an unlikely ally in Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer. Kentucky's lone statewide Republican elected official is eyeing a run for governor in 2015. But that hasn't stopped him from championing hemp in a state that has long resisted it.
"Before, people who had been proponents of industrial hemp would come and wear shirts with marijuana leafs and march at the Capitol and nobody would want to be seen with them," he said. "We made it about economic opportunities and clearly tried to define the difference between a hemp plant and a marijuana plant. The majority of the people in Kentucky understand it."
It's unclear if Kentucky's newfound acceptance will extend to medical marijuana. Supporters took a baby step in April when the state legislature legalized cannabidiol, a product of the cannabis plant. Republican state Sen. Julie Denton, whose daughter once suffered from epilepsy, sponsored the bill after researching its effectiveness in combatting seizures in children.
During Wednesday's public hearing, three state lawmakers - all Democrats - voiced support for legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. But Denton, the Republican chairwoman of the committee, chastised supporters who testified on Wednesday for disparaging Republicans and former President Richard Nixon for his role in criminalizing marijuana in the 1970s.
"You're not doing anything to help your cause. A lot of people on this committee support what you are trying to accomplish, without having to be derogatory about somebody and about a party," Denton said.
Denton later said she knows people who have used medical marijuana and "have had great results." She said the challenge to legalizing medical marijuana is the same challenge she faced in legalizing cannabidiol: educating lawmakers.
"I think people are really concerned about, as you've seen in California and in Colorado, increases in motor vehicle fatalities," Denton said. "In the future if Kentucky moves in that direction of medical marijuana, it would be extremely limited in who can prescribe it and who can dispense it."