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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?

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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.)

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"McConnell's conversion [is] evidence that the cause … long identified with hippies and stoners has gained respectability among conservatives," writes Reason.com'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."

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.

RECOMMENDED: 3 views on whether states should legalize marijuana

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