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FILE - In this Aug. 13, 2015, file photo, hemp plants tower above researchers who tend to them at a research farm in Lexington, Ky. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday, March 26, 2018, he wants to bring hemp production back into the mainstream by removing it from the controlled substances list that now associates it with marijuana, its illicit cousin. (AP Photo/Bruce Schreiner, File)

By BRUCE SCHREINER

The Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Freed from the list of federally banned substances, hemp is about to have another growth spurt in Kentucky. The state's agriculture commissioner said Tuesday that his department has approved 1,035 applications to produce up to 42,086 acres of industrial hemp in 2019. Last year, 210 licensed growers planted more than 6,700 acres when the low-THC version of the cannabis plant was operating under a limited reprieve.

The new surge offers more proof that Kentucky is poised to become a national leader in hemp production, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles said.

"The numbers tell you what you need to know about the excitement about hemp in Kentucky," he said. "The growth in the number of approved acres ... shows that Kentucky is rapidly becoming the epicenter of the hemp industry in the United States."

Hemp became a legitimate agricultural crop late last year when a provision in the federal farm bill removed the plant from the list of federally controlled substances. For decades, the leafy plant was banned due to its family ties to marijuana. But hemp, unlike its cousin, has a negligible amount of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.

Hemp gained mainstream support in Kentucky several years ago and the state's most prominent political leader - Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell - led the legalization push in Congress last year. Legalization means hemp farmers will be able to buy crop insurance, apply for loans and grants and write off their business expenses on their taxes like any other farmer.

States have been given primary regulatory oversight of hemp. In Kentucky, the state Department of Agriculture said Tuesday it has approved 40 new applications from businesses wanting to process hemp. That's on top of the 69 existing processors who are renewing their licenses for 2019, it said.

Growers, however, haven't always reached the maximum allowable acres of hemp they were licensed to plant.

Last year, the 210 growers were licensed to plant up to 16,100 acres (6,515 hectares) of hemp, but ended up planting more than 6,700 acres (2,700 hectares).

Still, the crop has gained a strong foothold since its comeback began in 2014 when a mere 32 acres (13 hectares) of hemp were planted.

Hemp's comeback started with the 2014 federal farm bill. McConnell helped push for a provision that allowed states to pursue hemp research and development. That allowed the crop to be grown on an experimental basis.

The versatile crop was historically used for rope but has many other uses, including clothing and mulch from the fiber; hemp milk and cooking oil from the seeds; and soap and lotions. Other uses include building materials, animal bedding and biofuels. Hemp-derived cannabidiol, or CBD oil, as a health product has become an increasingly large market.

To grow or process hemp in Kentucky, farmers and businesses must be licensed by the state agriculture department. License holders must pass background checks and consent to inspections by law enforcement or state agriculture officials of any premises where hemp is grown, handled, stored or processed.

In West Virginia, there were 46 hemp growers in the state last year, according to the West Virginia Department of Agriculture (WVDA). This year the agency has received 170 applications to grow industrial hemp.

"What we can say for sure is there's a lot of excitement around growing industrial hemp," Kent Leonhardt, West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture, said. "The WVDA has seen a 300 percent increase in applications for the 2019 growing season. Our challenge will be to match this excitement with the resources for proper management."

Leonhardt said the WVDA receives no state or federal support to manage the program. "We lag behind states like Kentucky, which will collect upwards of $500,000 in fees to support four full-time employees," he said. "While we work with the Legislature to find ways to bring in more resources, we know we cannot operate this program on the $9,000 in fees we collect."

Leonhardt says West Virginia's hemp industry still has numerous challenges ahead."If we work together, West Virginia can tap into this new market," he said. "We need support from Governor Jim Justice and our West Virginia Legislature as we work through this process. We need to work with law enforcement to ensure illegal drugs are not being grown alongside legal crops. Farmers will have to understand how to comply with laws while formulating best practices. As the regulatory agency, the WVDA will need to provide more support to our farmers in the early years, as this industry gets off the ground."

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