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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?

By Staff writer / February 16, 2013

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks with reporters at the Capitol. Sen. McConnell is cosponsoring a bill that would legalize industrial hemp.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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ATLANTA

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.

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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 like Georgia 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 and George 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.

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