Kentucky Hemp Seed Battle Isn't Quite Over

DEA expected to release seized seeds soon, but legal fight will continue.

The U.S. Department of Justice is allowing regulated marijuana markets in Colorado and Washington state, but its anti-drug subdivision, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, seized low-THC hemp seeds shipped from Italy to Kentucky.

The U.S. Department of Justice is allowing regulated marijuana markets in Colorado and Washington state, but its anti-drug subdivision, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration seized low-THC hemp seeds shipped from Italy to Kentucky.

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The Drug Enforcement Administration is inching toward releasing 250 pounds of hemp seeds seized en route to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture for distribution to university pilot programs.

Lawyers for the DEA and Kentucky faced off in federal court for a second time Wednesday to discuss the seeds, which were shipped from Italy earlier this month.

Kentucky officials filed suit May 14 seeking an emergency injunction requiring the DEA to release the seeds, which must be planted before June 1 for optimal growing, saying the agency is exceeding its authority and imposing arbitrary roadblocks.

An amendment to the federal farm bill signed into law by President Barack Obama in February allows states to authorize hemp-growing pilot programs. Hemp backers say the provision supersedes older regulations that effectively banned farming marijuana’s fibrous low-THC cousin for decades.

The DEA disagrees.

The anti-drug agency is requiring Kentucky to secure a controlled substance import permit. Its lawyers said Wednesday the seeds will be released after Kentucky officials submit a list of locations where the seeds are going – a list featuring six universities and three affiliated private growers – accompanied by the upward limit of seeds destined for each location.

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“I cannot envision a scenario where we do not have the seed today or tomorrow,” says Holly Harris VonLuehrte, chief of staff to Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.

U.S. District Judge John Heyburn has not issued a ruling as the two sides negotiate, but scheduled a Friday conference call to evaluate progress.

At an initial hearing May 16, DEA lawyers insisted that the Kentucky Department of Agriculture apply for the import permit. The department did so, and the DEA then insisted on inspecting the state’s hemp seed storage facility.

The Kentucky Department of Agriculture is now a registered controlled substance importer, and hopes to acquire the import permit very soon.

VonLuehrte is cautiously optimistic the goal posts have stopped moving. Last week she said negotiating with the DEA is “like buying a house.”

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Based on the most recent courtroom discussions, VonLuehrte says private growers who have signed memorandums of understanding with the department appear to have a green light to grow hemp – resolving one of the final sticking points. Those growers include a group of veterans, a tobacco farmer and a man working on an animal bedding project.

“Clearly the intent of Congress is to allow farmers to grow hemp on pilot projects,” Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., who co-introduced the hemp amendment and anticipated DEA opposition to private growers, told U.S. News Friday. “The government doesn’t own plantations.”

The Department of Justice says Kentucky officials should have seeds sometime this week.

“It’s safe to say everyone would like this to happen quickly,” Justice Department spokeswoman Ellen Canale tells U.S. News. “This is the first time we’re all doing this, and so there is bound to be snags and hiccups and here and there, but we’re happy this is being resolved."

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Kentucky successfully procured about 100 pounds of hemp seed – enough to plant about 3 acres, according to VonLuehrte – before the DEA ordered U.S. Customs and Border Protection to detain the 250-pound shipment from Italy at a UPS facility in Louisville, Ky.

The 100 pounds of seed were shipped by California-based hemp activist and businessman Chris Boucher, the vice president of US Hemp Oil, a company that hopes to jump-start the U.S. hemp industry with donated seeds.

Boucher tells U.S. News he purchased the 100 pounds from a French supplier and shipped them directly to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture without a DEA controlled substance import permit.

“I try to keep a low profile,” he says. “We just went ahead and did it.”

He says he’s purchased “several metric tons” of hemp seeds in Canada and Europe for about $3.50 a pound, but is waiting for the Kentucky case’s outcome before importing that haul.