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Is the South ready to say howdy to hemp?

Along with a federal bill, Kentucky is mulling the legalization of industrial hemp, marijuana’s close cousin. Is it good business sense — or a Trojan horse for legalizing pot in the South?

The Framers of the Constitution were big into hemp, and, after 56 years of prohibition, America is on the cusp of ending a hemp ban as part of a push to help farmers. The big question, though, is whether the South’s conservative farm region can agree that hemp ain’t pot.

As medical marijuana and pot legalization movements gain ground in Western and Northern states, the South, starting with Kentucky, may be moving ahead on pot’s cousin, hemp, a flax-like fiber that proponents say has uses in 25,000 products and is already commercially farmed across a globe where marijuana is still largely outlawed.

This week, Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, teamed up with fellow Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul and Oregon’s two Democratic Senators – Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley – to introduce a hemp legalization bill, saying, “This legislation has the potential to create jobs and provide a boost to Kentucky’s economy and to our farmers and their families.”

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After years of debate about hemp’s practical uses and potential boost to US agriculture, eight other states, all outside the South, have legalized hemp, though it’s not being grown commercially because the federal government refuses to permit farmers.

But after a hemp legalization bill passed the Kentucky Senate on Thursday, it’s also becoming clear that age-old suspicions about the plant persist, especially here in a region where states likeGeorgia just recently ousted “blue laws” that prohibit alcohol sales on Sundays.

The underlying fear is that, given permissive attitudes around pot in other parts of the country, hemp may serve as a kind of Trojan horse for legalization in a region that, given its historic views on vice, doesn’t take too kindly to making mind-altering substances available.

“We’ve heard that you can’t get high off of hemp. You can get high off of hemp,” warned Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer.

The history of hemp in the South is long, storied, and complex. Virginians Thomas Jefferson andGeorge Washington both sang its praises and cited its usefulness for a young, growing nation in need of raw product to make sails and rope.

But the product became more closely linked to its smokable cousin during the prohibition era and was effectively outlawed in the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. The war effort in the 1940s brought hemp back into production, but it was once again phased out by Washington in 1957.

Since then, the Drug Enforcement Administration has firmly opposed state efforts to legalize it. While technically the DEA can regulate hemp production in the US, it only permits its production for research purposes.

In that light, it’s widely seen as a political big deal to have two big-name Republicans sign onto a pro-hemp effort, painted as an economic recovery tool to help replace waning crops like tobacco in a state that exports over $350 million in farm products every year. (Hemp products rack up about $300 million in retail sales a year, according to the Congressional Research Service.)

“McConnell’s conversion [is] evidence that the cause … long identified with hippies and stoners has gained respectability among conservatives,” writes’s Jacob Sullum, author of “Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use.” “The fact that it has taken so long is testimony to the plant’s powerful symbol, because there is no logical reason to stop farmers from growing hemp … even if you support marijuana prohibition.”

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The move comes as the Republican Party tries to rebuild popular support after a tough 2012 election. Its relative weakness in attracting young, socially liberal Americans has been a prime concern, and which a pro-hemp message might help while also addressing the country’s stubborn high unemployment.

“I’m not up here saying that next year everybody is going to work for a hemp farm,” Sen. Paul told reporters recently. “But why not legalize something that could produce jobs? And probably will.”

Yet prohibitionists do have cause for concern about ulterior motives behind the hemp bill. Its prime sponsor, state Sen. Perry Clark of Louisville, has also introduced a medical marijuana bill, saying “it’s time for Kentucky to get onboard” with decriminalization of marijuana.

To be sure, the bill faces a tough road ahead in the Kentucky House. House Speaker Greg Stumbo says he doesn’t want the state to help goad farmers into planting a crop that may not be commercially viable.

“You wouldn’t want to turn them away from profitable crops and ask them to grow something that there’s no market for,” Mr. Stumbo told WDRB-TV in Frankfort. “And quite frankly, the evidence that we’ve seen indicates that there’s not much of a market for industrial hemp.”

Indeed, the real backdrop to lingering hemp opposition is that many in the South believe the pro-hemp and pro-marijuana movements are one and the same. Meanwhile, outside the South, dozens of US states currently allow medical marijuana and two states – Washington and Colorado– legalized marijuana for recreational use in November.

“A level of about 1 percent THC is considered the threshold for cannabis to have … an intoxicating potential,” according to a January paper published by the Congressional Research Service. “Current laws regulating hemp cultivation in the EU and Canada use .3 percent THC as the dividing line between industrial and potentially drug-producing cannabis.”

If legalized, the US government says farmers can expect one acre of hemp to yield 50 gallons of hemp oil or 1,300 pounds of fiber. A 2000 USDA study found that US hemp markets “will likely remain small [and] thin,” largely because of “uncertainty about long-run demand for hemp products.” Canadian researchers have written more recently, however, that hemp markets are exhibiting a “strong upward trend.”

Products that utilize hemp include beer, auto parts, paint, carpeting and fabric.