Category Archives: Kentucky & KY State Gov.

Mitch McConnell’s Love Affair with Hemp How the Kentucky senator picked a fight with the DEA and became one of Washington’s top drug policy reformers.

Last May, a shipment of 250 pounds of hemp seeds left Italy destined for Kentucky as part of a pilot project made legal by the 2013 federal farm bill. Kentucky farmers had long hoped for a crop that could fill the void left by the decline of tobacco, and many thought that industrial hemp, which is used in a vast array of products, could be that crop.

The hemp seeds cleared customs in Chicago, but when the cargo landed at the UPS wing of Louisville International Airport, the Drug Enforcement Administration seized it, arguing that importing hemp seeds required an import permit, which could take six months to process. If farmers couldn’t get those seeds into the ground by June 1, the entire first year of the hemp pilot program would be dashed.

The DEA would have succeeded in blocking the seeds from reaching Kentucky farmers and university researchers but for the efforts of the state’s agricultural commissioner, who sued the agency and, most improbably, Mitch McConnell.

McConnell—then the Senate’s minority leader—worked furiously to free the seeds from the DEA’s clutches and continued the pro-hemp drumbeat throughout 2014, as he campaigned for reelection. This year, as Senate majority leader, he’s taken a further step by co-sponsoring the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2015. While the farm bill carved out an exception to allow hemp cultivation in Kentucky, the 2015 bill would remove hemp entirely from the list of drugs strictly regulated by the Controlled Substances Act. It would, in essence, legalize hemp production in the United States.

“We are laying the groundwork for a new commodity market for Kentucky farmers,” McConnell told me. “And by exploring innovative ways to use industrial hemp to benefit a variety of Kentucky industries, the pilot programs could help boost our state’s economy and lead to future jobs. … I look forward to seeing industrial hemp prosper in the Commonwealth.”

Yes, Mitch McConnell said that. About hemp.

To grasp how McConnell—the quintessential establishment Republican—came to champion industrial hemp, you must first understand the economics and internal politics of Kentucky, as well as McConnell’s relationship to Kentucky’s junior senator, Rand Paul. It’s also helpful to know that close to $500 million worth of hemp products produced by Canada and other countries is already sold in the United States through such stores as Whole Foods. McConnell’s move also has potential ramifications beyond the marketplace, providing a credible threat to the Controlled Substances Act since it was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1970.

“The fact that Majority Leader McConnell is a co-sponsor of a hemp bill shows how fast the politics are changing on this issue,” said Bill Piper of the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit group that favors reform. (Bill Piper should not be confused with Billy Piper, former McConnell chief of staff and current K Street lobbyist).


The story of how Mitch McConnell evolved on the hemp issue began in 2010. Rand Paul, a Tea Party favorite, was running to replace the retiring Jim Bunning in the U.S. Senate and spent much of the primary season blasting McConnell, who not only represented the establishment but also supported a different Republican candidate. The McConnell-Paul relationship changed dramatically after Paul prevailed in the primary and McConnell vigorously stepped in to support him in the general election against the Democratic nominee, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway.

The bond only grew when Paul came to the Senate in 2011. Paul encouraged McConnell to consider the hemp issue because it was favored by conservatives and Tea Party types, according to two sources familiar with those discussions. McConnell listened.

The other Kentucky Republican who played a role in McConnell’s evolution was Jamie Comer, the state’s newly minted agriculture commissioner. In August 2012, Comer held a news conference before the 49th annual Kentucky Farm Bureau Country Ham Breakfast—a big shindig on the Kentucky politics circuit—to announce that legalization of hemp in the state would be his No. 1  priority in the next legislative session. Paul and U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, another Kentucky Republican, were there to support Comer; each later testified in support of Comer’s measure before the state Senate agriculture committee in February 2013, along with Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat from Louisville.

“I engaged with Jamie Comer,” Yarmuth told me. “He reached out to me. From the beginning it’s been a bipartisan thing.”

In Washington, D.C., McConnell was approached multiple times from hemp supporters back home. After the fourth such approach, the senior senator from Kentucky turned to his chief of staff, Josh Holmes, and said, “We’ve got to look into this.”


If, like the average U.S. senator, you are unfamiliar with the botany of the cannabis plant, here’s a quick primer:

For starters, hemp is sometimes referred to as marijuana’s “cousin,” which is an unhelpful metaphor because hemp and marijuana are actually the same species, Cannabis sativa. They are simply different strains, and they are cultivated and harvested in different ways.

The cannabis plant is dioecious, which means its male and female flowers grow on different plants. This is unusual: Dioecious species—including gingkoes, willows and a few others—make up only 6 percent of all flowering plants.

Hemp is produced after the male plant fertilizes the females—something that happens almost immediately once the plants flower. Marijuana, on the other hand, is produced from the unfertilized flower of the female plant. A person interested in growing marijuana wants only female plants; a plant that shows signs of male flowers is plucked immediately, before it can mature and pollinate the females around it.

Pollen contamination is one of the chief concerns of marijuana growers, legal and illegal, because as soon as a female flower becomes pollinated, she stops making her THC-rich resin and begins focusing entirely on seed production. (Hemp is defined by Kentucky law as containing less than 0.3 percent THC; unfertilized marijuana flowers could have THC levels of 20 percent or more.)

For decades, the law enforcement lobby has peddled anti-hemp talking points that just didn’t add up. During the 2013 farm bill debate, the DEA asserted that, “It can be extremely difficult to distinguish cannabis grown for industrial purposes from cannabis grown for smoking. This is especially true if law enforcement is attempting to make this determination without entering the premises on which the plants are being grown.”

James Higdon is a freelance writer based in Louisville and author of The Cornbread Mafia: A Homegrown Syndicate’s Code of Silence and the Biggest Marijuana Bust in American History. He can be reached at @jimhigdon. Full disclosure: His father, Jimmy Higdon, is a Republican state senator in the Kentucky state legislature.

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Kentucky reaches settlement with Big Tobacco

Adam Beam, AP Business Writer 6:04 p.m. EDT June 12, 2014

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Tobacco companies have agreed to pay Kentucky more than $110 million to settle a 10-year legal battle over the state’s share of the tobacco master settlement agreement.

In 1998, U.S. tobacco companies agreed to pay $229 billion to 52 states and territories over many years to compensate them for the costs of treating smoking-related illnesses. The companies also agreed to advertising restrictions, including a ban on marketing to youth.

Lots of smaller tobacco companies did not participate in the settlement and were not subject to its restrictions. Kentucky agreed to charge those companies more taxes as a way to level the playing field with the bigger tobacco companies.

But in 2003, the big tobacco companies accused Kentucky of not collecting all of the taxes it was supposed to. As a result, they withheld some of Kentucky’s annual payments. State officials and tobacco companies have been fighting over those disputed payments since 2003.

In September, a federal arbitrator ruled Kentucky did not do all it could to collect the taxes. Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway challenged that arbitration ruling in court. But the state was in danger of losing all of its tobacco settlement payments – tens of millions of dollars each year that paid for a range of agricultural, public health and early childhood education programs.

That’s why in November, Conway said he began secret negotiations with the tobacco companies in hopes of reaching a settlement.

"There was no end in sight," Conway said. "Given the time, value of money and the needs of this state and the agricultural community and our health community right now, I think it’s a good deal for the state."

According to the terms of the agreement — which Conway signed on Wednesday — Kentucky will get $110.4 million of the disputed payments in the 2014 fiscal year, bringing the state’s total payments to $158.7 million. Going forward, tobacco companies will pay Kentucky 45% of the disputed payments.

Kentucky is the 23rd state to settle this dispute with the tobacco companies.

"By joining 22 other states in settling, Kentucky escapes that chaotic landscape of future legal battles as well as saves itself from the financial and administrative cost of litigating these decades-old events," Beshear said.

Denise F. Keane, executive vice president and general counsel of Altria — the parent company of Philip Morris — called the settlement good for both parties.

"We have always said we are open to resolving these disputes in a manner that makes sense to the states and to us, and that remains the case," she said in a news release.


Limited CBD bill becomes law in Kentucky

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Limited CBD bill becomes law in Kentucky

Medical marijuana bills die as legislative session ends

Dear Sheree,

The Kentucky Legislature adjourned yesterday, ending its work for the year. Sadly, although the House Health and Welfare Committee approved an effective medical marijuana bill in February, it was not called for a vote in the House.

Legislators did make an effort to help some seriously ill patients who could benefit from cannabidiol (“CBD,” a non-psychoactive component of marijuana). On Thursday, April 10, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear signed into law a proposal that is intended to allow patients to use CBD if directed to do so by a physician. The new law went into effect immediately with his signature, but, unfortunately, it is unlikely that it will actually result in patients being able to access CBD.

Despite concerns about access, and the fact that this legislation excludes the vast majority of medical marijuana patients, it is still a positive step forward. For more information on this new law, please see our summary of S.B. 124.


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Matt Simon

Matt Simon
Legislative Analyst
Marijuana Policy Project


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Kentucky Bill Seeks to Nullify Warrantless Drone Spying



The Kentucky legislature will consider a bill in the 2014 legislative session that would take significant steps towards protecting people there from prying eyes in the sky.

Representatives Diane St. Onge (R-Lakeside Park) and Brent Yonts (D-Greenville) have introduced House Bill 11 (HB11). If passed, the act would prohibit the use of drones by Kentucky state law enforcement and other agencies without a warrant in most cases.

The bill states that “No prohibited agency shall use a drone carrying a lethal payload” and that “no prohibited agency shall use a drone to gather evidence or other information” without a search warrant. Prohibited agencies include state law enforcement agencies, domestic or foreign corporations, foreign governmental or intergovernmental entities and any agent of any prohibited agency.

The legislation also makes any evidence gathered in violation of the law inadmissible in court.

The act does make exceptions allowing the use of drones for gathering information when the proper legal process has been followed and for training by active service members of the United States military stationed in Kentucky.

While some might find the exceptions troubling, it represents a huge improvement over the status quo. As it stands now, law enforcement can use drones in Kentucky with absolutely no restrictions. This bill stops drone use without a warrant in most cases.

The legislation does not address drone use by the federal government, but Tenth Amendment Center’s executive director Michael Boldin said that this kind of bill does have significant ramifications at the federal level because Washington is pushing and funding drone use in the states.

“The feds want to push these on the states, and if the states refuse, it’ll foil their plan,” he said. “They already spy on Americans so much that Rand Paul said it numbered in the ‘Gazillions’ after a secret meeting last fall. If the feds can get the states to start buying up and running drones over our cities, they’ll certainly want access to all that surveillance  information in the future. It’s important that states begin drawing a line in the sand now – no aerial spying here.”

In fact, the federal government serves as the primary engine behind the expansion of drone surveillance carried out by states and local communities. The Department of Homeland Security issues large grants to local governments so they can purchase drones. Those grants, in and of themselves, represent an unconstitutional expansion of power.

The goal? Fund a network of drones around the country and put the operational burden on the states. Once they create a web over the whole country, DHS steps in with requests for ‘information sharing.’  Bills like these put a dent in this kind of long-term strategy. Without the states and local communities operating the drones today, it’s going to be nearly impossible for DHS plans to – take off.

HB11 was prefiled April 11, 2013 and referred to the Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary to start the 2014 legislative session.


If you live in Kentucky

1. Contact committee members and ask them to move the Citizens’ Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act out of committee for a floor vote. You can find committee member contact information HERE.

2. Contact your own senator and ask him or her to support the Citizens’ Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act You can find legislator contact information HERE.

3.  Share this information widely.  Please pass this along to your friends and family.  Also share it with any and all grassroots groups you’re in contact with around the state.  Please encourage them to email this information to their members and supporters.


If you don’t live in Kentucky, encourage your representative and senator to introduce legislation to stop drone use. You can track efforts nationwide HERE. You can find model legislation HERE.

Kentucky has more lakes suspected of having toxic algae




LOUISVILLE, Ky. —Kentucky has seven lakes suspected of having excessive levels of toxic algae, but state officials aren’t revealing which bodies of water are being targeted for a second round of tests.

Kentucky environmental regulators are drawing water from the lakes for a second time for more rigorous laboratory analysis after initial samples showed concentrations of blue-green algae worthy of health advisories.

Kentucky Division of Water official Clark Dorman said the lakes involved in the most recent advisory aren’t run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Five Corps-run lakes were the subject of a recent advisory.

Even though the state’s initial tests suggested health risks to the public, dogs and farm animals, state officials are declining to identify those water bodies.


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short list of names you’re likely to see during the 2013 General Assembly

By John Cheves —

Keeping up with who’s who in Frankfort can be difficult. Here’s a short list of names you’re likely to see during the 2013 General Assembly:

Gov. Steve Beshear is a Democrat serving his second term. Though he’s the state’s chief executive, Beshear has limited sway during legislative sessions. However, his top priority — legalized casino gambling — could be revived again in 2013, and if so, he might involve himself. Also, lawmakers say Beshear should make a statewide push for tax reform if he expects political momentum behind an overhaul of the tax code.

Audrey Tayse Haynes is Beshear’s secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. Look for Haynes to be enmeshed in several controversies, including the state’s shift to private management of Medicaid (medical providers are complaining about late and inadequate payments) and preparations for Obamacare, also known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Her predecessor, Janie Miller, caught flak from Republican lawmakers and resigned during the 2012 session.

Sen. Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, is expected to be chosen by his colleagues as the next Senate president, replacing the departed David Williams. The leadership style of Stivers, a lawyer, remains to be seen. He’s generally more relaxed than Williams, who sometimes ruled the Senate with an iron fist. But he takes seriously his role as opposition leader and isn’t shy about challenging the Democratic administrations of Beshear and President Barack Obama.

Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, is presumed to be the next Senate majority leader, taking the No. 2 spot now held by Stivers. Thayer is a horse-industry consultant and — working with Beshear — advocates casino gambling at horse racetracks. Thayer also co-chaired a task force on state pension reform during 2012, so he will be a key player in whatever the legislature does on pensions.

Senate Minority Leader R.J. Palmer, D-Winchester, is a financial adviser at Civic Finance Advisors, raising money for cities, counties and special taxing districts. Democrats are a fast-shrinking minority in the Senate, so Palmer will have as much clout as Stivers allows him. When Williams was Senate president, Democrats seldom got their say.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, is a wealthy lawyer with financial interests in coal and banking. First elected to the House in 1980 while he was still in his 20s, Stumbo is now 61 and one of Frankfort’s most senior politicians. He skillfully uses his power to control the Democratic-led House. He’s also a possible candidate for governor in 2015, setting up rivalries with other Democrats.

House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, is president of RJA Enterprises, though he refuses to say what the company does. He has financial interests in coal and banking, like Stumbo, his fellow Eastern Kentuckian. As Stumbo’s man on the House floor, Adkins helps decide the flow of legislation, giving some bills a thumbs up and others a thumbs down.

House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, is a lawyer and radio executive. Hoover’s Republican caucus has clawed its way up to 45 of the House’s 100 seats. But without a majority, he will continue to deliver indignant floor speeches after Democrats get their way. That said, Hoover successfully challenged the Democrats’ political redistricting map last year, getting it tossed out by a court.

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Forget the “Unbridled Spirit”….


Does Kentucky need a kick-ass makeover?

Gertie The OFFICIAL KY Marijuana Party Chicken

What comes to mind when you think about Kentucky? (Assuming you do think about Kentucky, that is.)

I’m betting fried chicken, bourbon and horse racing.

But some grassroots marketers are pushing to supplant those Bluegrass State images with this sentiment: Kentucky Kicks Ass. (That’s "kicks ass" as in "We’re really cool," as opposed to "kicks ass" as in "We’re aiming a boot at your unsuspecting rear end.")

The proposed slogan has a certain redneck swagger, unlike the considerably more demure "Kentucky — Unbridled Spirit," which has been the state’s tagline since 2005. A group of advertising guys who dub themselves Kentucky for Kentucky coined the slogan — along with ad prototypes, a video and T-shirts — declaring it "unexpected and bold … coming from a state that’s considered to be fairly conservative."

State officials have a different view.

"We certainly would not sanction or endorse that phraseology," says state tourism department spokesman Pat Sipes. "These guys are Kentucky natives and they love the state. But they have a different constituency. Which is no one."

State slogans are tricky. They’re supposed to lure tourists and new businesses, and, as the Kentucky Kicks Ass creators stress in their promotional video, foster state spirit and quash stereotypes. (Cue the mullet-coiffed shirtless guy leaning against a pickup.)

But capturing the essence of a place in a few short words is a daunting challenge.

Some state slogans are simple commands: "Explore Minnesota." Some are grandiose: "North Dakota: Legendary." Some raise questions: "North Carolina: A Better Place to Be." (Better than where?)

One of the most enduring, "Virginia Is for Lovers" has been around for 43 years. It was coined in 1969 (eight years before another stalwart, "I LOVE NY") and was the brainchild of a $100-a-week copywriter who paired two irresistible concepts — travel and romance.

But the essential question: Do these slogans work?

Not really, Cornell University marketing professor Chekitan Dev told me a few years back. Two reasons for failure: They don’t truly differentiate a place, and the destinations often can’t back up their claims.

So whether Kentucky really kicks ass, is in the eye — or some more nether region — of the beholder.

Not that it matters. The odds that Kentucky Kicks Ass will replace Kentucky — Unbridled Spirit are " zero," Stipes says.

Perhaps. But the Kentucky for Kentucky guys can dream, can’t they?

"Go ahead and Google "Unbridled Spirit," challenges Griffin VanMeter in the group’s promotional video. "You know what you come up with? Horseback riding lessons. In San Antonio."


Grimes: 51,000 absentee ballots cast so far in Ky.


More than 51,000 Kentucky voters have cast absentee ballots ahead of the Nov. 6 election.

Absentee ballot info: Kentucky | Indiana

Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes said Tuesday that’s on par with the count two weeks ahead of the 2008 election.

In Kentucky, voters who will be out of town or otherwise unable to get to the polls on Election Day can vote early by absentee ballots.

Besides the presidential race, Kentucky has a competitive congressional race in central Kentucky. Voters also will choose a Supreme Court justice from eastern Kentucky and state legislators across the state.

In some parts of the state, local races also are on the ballot.

Grimes, the state’s chief elections officer, hasn’t yet projected how many of Kentucky’s 3 million eligible voters will turn out on Election Day.

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