Kentucky’s Department of Agriculture wants 250 pounds of hemp seeds from the federal government, and is suing various agencies in order to get them.
US Customs officials seized the shipment of seeds from Italy when they arrived in Louisville. Kentucky’s government intends to use the seeds in pilot projects across the state to study the potential of industrial hemp production. The lawsuit filed Wednesday — which names the Department of Justice, the Drug Enforcement Administration, US Customs and Border Protection, and Attorney General Eric Holder as defendants — seeks to prompt the federal surrender of the seeds before the planting window closes on June 1.
Kentucky’s Agriculture Commissioner James Comer thought he had a deal in place with the DEA on Tuesday for an expedited import permit that would release the seeds, but he balked late that evening when he learned that the required permit was for “controlled substances.”
Growing hemp has been illegal in the US for decades because the plant is a variety of cannabis, which federal authorities consider a dangerous substance with a high potential for abuse. Cannabis in general can technically be considered “hemp,” but the term is typically reserved for varieties distinguished by a negligible amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive component of cannabis known as THC that makes people like it so much.
The rest of the world has no difficulty producing hemp. China, South Korea, and Russia produce 70 percent of the world’s supply.
Hemp is cultivated primarily for the strong fiber of its stems, which can be used to create things like fabric, rope, and paper. Its cellulose can be turned into biodegradable plastic. Milled hemp seed has lately emerged as a health food, and the plant’s oil can be used to produce biodiesel fuel. Its versatile fibers can be compressed into durable building materials like insulation, wallboard, flooring, roofing tiles, and paneling. In fact, the plant’s bewildering range of industrial applications seems limited only by the imagination.
Comer was alarmed by the DEA’s “controlled substances” provision because a recent federal farm bill granted states permission to cultivate test plots of hemp for research purposes — which is exactly what Kentucky is trying to do. Twelve other states also have laws that provide for hemp production as authorized by the farm bill.
But the farm bill doesn’t really address the purchase and handling of hemp seeds, leaving it up to federal agencies, according to Claire Lewis, an expert on industrial hemp with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“Importing those seeds can be considered a Schedule I violation,” she told VICE News, referring to narcotics law.
Republican Kentucky Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul fought for the provision authorizing the growing of hemp. Their state, whose first recorded hemp crop was planted in 1775, once had a thriving hemp industry. It was a dominant producer of the crop throughout the 19th Century, and its enterprise did particularly well during the Spanish-American War and the two World Wars. Hemp was poised to become America’s first billion-dollar crop when an unfortunate smear campaign against cannabis led to its wholesale criminalization.
“Today, the United States is the only industrialized nation that restricts the production of industrial hemp,” Paul wrote in an op-ed after the passage of the farm bill. “In the process of debating this issue, we’ve cut through the clutter and dispelled a lot of myths about industrial hemp. Winning those arguments was worth the fight, even if it seemed pretty futile at the start.”
Should Kentucky fail to obtain its 250 pounds of seeds in time to meet the June 1 deadline, it has a small supply available in-state.
“They do have some backup seeds from the 1950s,” Lewis said. “But they may not be able to germinate due to age.”
A federal judge will address the lawsuit in a hearing scheduled for Friday afternoon. Kentucky’s legal showdown with the feds is being watched closely by other states that plan on cultivating hemp — and is of high interest to the rest of us.
Follow Max Cherney on Twitter: @chernandburn
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