In Federal-State Marijuana Battle, Hemp Is The New Frontier

CREDIT: AP Photo/P. Solomon Banda

A hemp farm in Springfield, Colo., during the first known harvest of industrial hemp since the 1950s.

Kentucky is suing the federal government over a shipment of hemp seeds that was seized at the request of the Drug Enforcement Administration, in one of the more unusual battles coming out of the federal-state battle on marijuana laws.

The stand-off derives from new state and federal law that allows some growth of hemp in the United States after 30 years of prohibition. Hemp, an industrial product that contains negligible amounts of the component in marijuana that causes a high, is used to make textiles, paper, paints, clothing, plastics, and many other products. But its growth was nonetheless banned along with other strains of marijuana when the Controlled Substances Act was passed in 1970.

This year, with particular lobbying from members of Congress from Kentucky, where hemp was once a cash crop, Congress carved out an exception to that rule in the Farm Bill, which authorized some hemp growth and production through pilot research programs. To complement this law, Kentucky also passed its own law legalizing hemp growth, and set up eight research centers for growing the product.

Aiming to start its first harvest this spring, Kentucky imported a batch of seeds from Italy, where hemp production has long been a vibrant industry. But en route to Kentucky, the some 250 pounds of seeds were seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, at the request of the DEA.

Kentucky asked that the seeds be released pursuant to new laws. But DEA officials have insisted that importation of the seeds is still restricted, and that the Kentucky Department of Agriculture will have to jump through unanticipated administrative hoops before it can get access to the seeds, including obtaining a Schedule I research permit.

The hold-up has prompted anger not just from state officials, but from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who told Politico, “It is an outrage that DEA is using finite taxpayer dollars to impound legal industrial hemp seeds.”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who has sponsored federal marijuana reform bills, took his hostility a step farther, telling the Huffington Post, “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. 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 shakeup over there if they ever want to be taken seriously.”

On Wednesday, Kentucky sued federal officials for immediate access to its hemp seeds, warning of irreparable harm if it loses an entire growing season on account of administrative delays. The complaint explains that hemp seeds should be planted no later than June 1, and that “every day that passes without the pilot programs being initiated is likely to reduce the probability of a viable industrial hemp crop being produced.”

Unlike state programs to legalize medical or recreational marijuana, Kentucky’s program is coordinated through the state Department of Agriculture, and aims to work explicitly with the federal government. But the seizure of hemp seeds suggests this approach may have made Kentucky’s hemp program more difficult. In Colorado, hemp growth has been underway since the state implemented its recreational marijuana law last year. The Department of Agriculture says in its lawsuit that it has no intention of “arranging for the illegal, surreptitious or black market purchase of hemp seeds.”

It’s almost impossible to get high smoking industrial hemp, and few people would want to try given the high fiber content of the plant. But DEA resistance has not discriminated among types of cannabis. In addition to thwarting hemp imports, federal law prohibits cannabidiol, a marijuana extract that is also very low in the psychoactive component, THC, but has been found to provide remarkable relief to children with debilitating seizures.