Benson Bell, executive director for Consumer and Environmental Protection, left, and Adam Watson, program coordinator, weigh a bag of hemp seed Friday, May 23, 2014 at the Kentucky Department of Agriculture in Frankfort. The seeds from Italy that drew so much suspicion from federal drug officials were unceremoniously unloaded from a UPS truck and then weighed by state agriculture officials. The shipment featuring 13 seed varieties came in at 286 pounds. (James Crisp, The Courier-Journal)

Kentucky hemp on track again with federal permit for seeds

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Hemp seeds will be sprung from confinement and planted in Kentucky soil in coming days after federal drug officials approved a permit Thursday ending a standoff that had imperiled the state’s experimental plantings this spring, agriculture officials said.

Kentucky’s Agriculture Department received a delivery of the shipment of seeds from Italy on Friday, state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said. The first Kentucky hemp planting in decades could occur as soon as this weekend, he said.

“This is a historic day,” Comer said. “We’ve done something that no one thought we could do a year-and-a-half ago. We legalized industrial hemp and we’ve proven that it’s an agricultural crop and not a drug.”

Kentucky’s eight pilot hemp projects for research were put on hold after the seed shipment was stopped by U.S. customs officials in Louisville earlier this month. The state’s Agriculture Department then sued the federal government in hopes of freeing the seeds.

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Growing hemp without a federal permit was banned in 1970 due to its classification as a controlled substance related to marijuana.

Hemp and marijuana are the same species, Cannabis sativa, but hemp has a negligible amount of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high. Hemp’s comeback was spurred by the new federal farm bill, which allows state agriculture departments to designate hemp pilot projects for research in states such as Kentucky that allow hemp growing.

Justice Department spokeswoman Ellen Canale said Thursday the permit issued by the Drug Enforcement Administration authorizes the importation of 130 kilograms of hemp seeds.

The Justice Department was a defendant along with the DEA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the lawsuit filed by Kentucky’s Agriculture Department. The breakthrough came a day after attorneys for the Agriculture Department and federal government met with a federal judge.

The legal entanglements wasted some prime planting days, Comer said.

“There was no sense in this,” said Comer, a Republican who is considering a run for governor next year.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who crafted language in the farm bill allowing states to start pilot hemp projects, said he hoped the permit’s issuance was the final hurdle before hemp seeds are planted in his home state of Kentucky.

McConnell met with DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart on Wednesday to urge release of the seeds.

“It was the intent of my provision in the farm bill to allow states’ departments of agriculture and universities to explore the commercial use of industrial hemp as a means for job creation and economic development,” McConnell said.

Kentucky has been at the forefront of efforts to revive the versatile crop, and the lawsuit was closely watched in other states. Fifteen states have removed barriers to hemp production, according to the group Vote Hemp.

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Vote Hemp spokeswoman Lauren Stansbury said the release of the seeds in Kentucky “sets enormous precedent.”

“We’ll continue to oppose the DEA’s claim to authority in this area, as federal authority over hemp cultivation must be rightfully acknowledged and administered under the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” she said.

In Colorado, where marijuana and hemp were legalized in 2012, state agriculture officials have approved more than 100 hemp-growing operations. Most will be small scale, on less than 1,700 acres altogether.

Kentucky agriculture officials said time was of the essence in winning release of the seeds. Any plantings past June 1 would jeopardize research data from test plots, they said. Six universities are helping with research.

Kentucky’s industrial hemp commission approved guidelines for the hemp projects. Federal officials also inspected the Agriculture Department’s facilities where hemp seeds would be stored before being sent to fields.

Comer said the state received another shipment of hemp seeds about three weeks ago, before the disputed shipment from Italy triggered the legal fight. That first shipment wasn’t confiscated and the state’s Agriculture Department distributed those seeds to some universities, he said. The schools delayed planting them due to the legal entanglements over the second shipment, he said.

Hemp has historically been used for rope but has many other uses: clothing and mulch from the fiber; hemp milk and cooking oil from the seeds; and soap and lotions. Comer sees hemp as a potential cash crop that could produce other jobs in processing.

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