POLITICS
05/16/2014 01:18 pm ET Updated May 16, 2014

Kentucky Puts Hemp Planting On Hold After DEA Seed Seizure

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Kentucky's Department of Agriculture has put a hold on a hemp seed planting ceremony for the launch of the state's industrial hemp pilot program after the Drug Enforcement Administration seized the seeds at an airport earlier this week. The ceremony was to take place Friday.

The state has filed a lawsuit against the federal government for the return of the agricultural hemp seeds after the DEA told state officials they would have to apply for a permit to get them back.

"We have been directed by the KDA to not plant the hemp, as they are concerned the DEA will surely be present and that any arrest of hemp farmers would compromise their lawsuit," said Lauren Stansbury of hemp industry group Vote Hemp to HuffPost. A symbolic planting of non-viable hemp seeds is still planned, Stansbury added.

U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II has scheduled a Friday afternoon hearing in Louisville over a motion filed by the KDA to force the Department of Justice to release the seeds.

Advocates have said that if Heyburn hands down a ruling Friday afternoon, they will be ready to plant the hemp seeds later that day.

The suit, filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky, asks for return of the 250-pound shipment of seeds from Italy, seized at Louisville International Airport, that Kentucky had planned to use for an industrial hemp-growing pilot project. The lawsuit names the DEA, the Department of Justice, Customs and Border Protection and Attorney General Eric Holder, according to the complaint, which HuffPost obtained.

"The cultivation of industrial hemp ... is lawful," a motion filed by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture reads. "The public interest is served by allowing the KDA and Kentucky research universities to investigate the use of industrial hemp as a cash crop in Kentucky. The public interest is not served by allowing unaccountable federal agencies to exercise arbitrary and capricious powers, not rationally related to carrying out any legitimate governmental purpose."

Industrial hemp production was legalized for research in the recent farm bill, but the DEA contends that importation remains illegal. The agency has offered a wide variety of explanations to Kentucky officials perplexed at the seizure.

"They're interpreting the law a hundred different ways," Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer (R) told HuffPost. "The only way they're not interpreting it is the way it actually reads."

A DOJ official who asked not to be named said that "the issue at hand has always been the importation of hemp seeds, which the law as written didn't explicitly authorize. We have been working with the state to make sure they comply with existing procedures."

On Tuesday, the DEA told the Kentucky Department of Agriculture in a letter, obtained by HuffPost through an open records request, that the state has to apply for a permit to import Schedule I drugs before it can gain access to the seeds.

"We were told in multiple phone calls that we wouldn't have to do this Schedule I import permit," said Holly Harris VonLuehrte, a senior official at the Kentucky agriculture office. She added that agreeing to the DEA's demand would imply an endorsement of the agency's position that hemp remains illegal and classified by the U.S. government as a Schedule I drug, an interpretation of the law that many states dispute.

"Industrial hemp is not a Schedule I controlled substance," said VonLuehrte. "We're not going to execute a document that violates federal and state law."

The hemp plant is related to marijuana, but doesn't contain the psychoactive ingredient that generates a high. Industrial hemp is used in products ranging from textiles to cosmetics.

The DEA letter, signed by Deputy Assistant Administrator Joseph T. Rannazzisi of the Office of Diversion Control, insists there is some confusion as a result of this year's farm bill, which legalized hemp for research purposes in states like Kentucky that have regulatory regimes. That language was backed by, among others, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) -- placing the DEA squarely in opposition to the Senate minority leader -- and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R).

"The DEA has been and will continue to work with state officials to resolve outstanding issues related to the importation of hemp seeds. DEA has advised Kentucky it's necessary to apply for the appropriate permit, which the DEA has agreed to review on an expedited basis," said a Department of Justice spokeswoman.

Currently, 22 states have passed pro-hemp legislation and another 11 states have introduced it in some form. Fourteen states have defined industrial hemp as distinct fro marijuana and removed barriers to its production, and are thus able to pursue industrial hemp cultivation per the parameters of the farm bill.

Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and McConnell, the three lawmakers who introduced the hemp amendment to the farm bill President Barack Obama signed into law earlier this year, were deeply critical of the DEA action.

"I think I have a copy of the Congressional Record lying around my office that shows that Congress just debated this issue and voted overwhelmingly to allow research institutions to grow and study industrial hemp," Blumenauer told HuffPost. "I'd send it over to the DEA, but I'm worried they would classify it as rolling papers and seize it. With every move, the DEA is showing that they are incredibly out of touch with mainstream America. We need serious self-evaluation and shake-up over there if they ever want to be taken seriously."

Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, echoed Blumenauer's thoughts.

"If the DEA persists with this fool's errand, Vote Hemp will also pursue legal action," said Steenstra in a statement. "Vote Hemp and the Hemp Industries Association are dedicated to defending the legitimacy of industrial hemp cultivation, but furthermore, we will also stand up for the honest and hardworking farmers, manufacturers and entrepreneurs who see hemp as an opportunity for economic growth. We are clearly on the right side of the law in this case. We also appreciate the leadership and courage that Kentucky Agricultural Commissioner Comer continues to demonstrate in standing up to DEA's interference and intimidation tactics."

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