The Drug Enforcement Administration has seized a batch of seeds that were intended to be part of the launch of Kentucky's legal hemp industry following congressional legalization of the crop for research purposes.
The DEA 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."
Comer said that he met with Kentucky Sens. Mitch McConnell (R) and Rand Paul (R) this past weekend and relayed to them the DEA's claim that it was simply following the intent of the recently passed farm bill, which includes a passage championed by McConnell that allows colleges and state departments of agriculture to cultivate hemp for research purposes.
"They were just appalled, because Senator McConnell was the author of the language," Comer said. "He knows exactly what the congressional intent of the law was."
Federal customs officials stopped a 250-pound shipment of hemp seeds from Italy intended for use in Kentucky’s hemp growing pilot program, which the state's Department of Agriculture plans to launch this Friday.
Comer and organizers of the ceremonial planting said the event will go forward on Friday in spite of the DEA's seizure.
"They didn't realize, I don't guess, that we have some actual seed in hand," Comer said of the DEA, adding that the agency had hinted there could be arrests at the event. "I think they're running up the chain what they're gonna do."
"We're basically expecting the DEA may show up on Friday. If that does happen, our plan is to continue with the planting," said Lauren Stansbury, a spokesperson for Vote Hemp, which is partnering on the event.
The veterans' group Growing Warriors will also be at the event, said Stansbury. The program helps veterans to re-enter civilian society by teaching them agricultural skills.
"If they want to arrest a bunch of war veterans for planting hemp, that's their decision," she said. The hemp fiber, she added, will be processed and made into American flags.
Comer said that between Tuesday morning and mid-afternoon, he had four conference calls with the DEA. One official, he said, suggested the DEA would need to do a criminal background search on the University of Kentucky, one of the schools participating in the pilot program, before it could approve the use of the seeds.
Comer has vowed to sue the DEA if the seeds are not released.
"DEA is actively working with state officials to resolve outstanding issues related to importation of hemp seeds," a Department of Justice official told The Huffington Post.
The official said that the farm bill doesn't explicitly authorize the importation of hemp seeds -- rather, it discusses their growing and cultivation. Given that it is illegal to import hemp seeds, the DOJ official did not offer a recommendation on where or how states participating in the hemp program could obtain seeds.
David Barhorst, a hemp processor in Kentucky, said the DEA's move may end up backfiring.
"The DEA is willfully violating federal law and intentionally impeding the research of Kentucky's universities and Department of Agriculture," he said. "If that isn't a cry out loud for a leadership change at the DEA, I don't know what is."
The DEA's insertion of itself into the hemp program has been cause for concern among university officials who were planning to host the ceremony, Comer said. "Kentucky State [University] is supposed to be there but I'll be honest, they're spooked," Comer said. KSU and Murray State University, he said, have both gotten hemp seeds from California despite the DEA's efforts to intercept all incoming seeds.
The farm bill, which President Barack Obama signed into law in February, legalized industrial hemp production in states that permit it. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D) signed a state hemp bill into law back in 2013.
Currently, 12 states have legalized industrial hemp production and about two dozen others have introduced legislation that, if passed, would authorize research, set up a regulatory framework or legalize the growing of industrial hemp.
Hemp is the same species as marijuana -- Cannabis sativa -- but they are cultivated differently in order to enhance or diminish their THC properties, depending on the crop. Hemp contains little to no THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana associated with the "high" sensation.
Hemp, sometimes called marijuana's "sober cousin," has a long history in America, one that has encompassed a wide range of household products, including paper, cosmetics and textiles. In the 1700s, American colonial farmers were required by law to grow the plant, and it was used for hundreds of years in the U.S. to make rope, lamp oil and much more.
American industrial hemp production peaked in 1943, with more than 150 million pounds from 146,200 harvested acres. Although the crop hadn't yet been officially banned, production dropped to zero in the late 1950s as a result of "anti-drug sentiment and competition from synthetic fibers," according to the Associated Press.
DEA chief Michele Leonhart is known to be a foe of hemp. She previously told a group of sheriffs she was upset by a flag made of industrial hemp that flew over the U.S. Capitol on July 4, 2013, at the behest of Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.).
Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson of Bristol County, Massachusetts, told the Boston Herald in January that Leonhart "said her lowest point in 33 years in the DEA was when she learned they'd flown a hemp flag over the Capitol on July 4. The sheriffs were all shocked. This is the first time in 28 years I've ever heard anyone in her position be this candid.”
"This shows how shockingly out of touch Michele Leonhart is," Polis told HuffPost at the time. "You would think that one of her lowest points would have been when she completely embarrassed herself by failing to state the obvious scientific fact that marijuana is less harmful and addictive than heroin."
Kentucky's crop wouldn't be the first known hemp crop grown on U.S. soil since the federal hemp production ban. In 2013, Colorado farmer Ryan Loflin harvested the first hemp crop grown on American soil in nearly 60 years after the state voters approved Amendment 64, which legalized recreational marijuana and laid the groundwork for industrial hemp production in the state.
The DEA did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
UPDATE: Late Tuesday night, the DEA agreed to issue a permit, and release the 250 pounds of Italian hemp seeds being held by the U.S. Customs Service, Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer told the Lexington Herald-Leader.
"It looks like we've won this round," Comer said in a statement. "The DEA completely reversed course from this morning. I think we just needed to get their attention."