Kentucky officials say the Drug Enforcement Administration is breaking the law in an attempt to illegally ruin the state’s industrial hemp pilot program.
The Bluegrass State legalized industrial hemp in 2013 and the federal farm bill signed by President Barack Obama in February allows states to grow it for research.
Industrial hemp superficially resembles marijuana, but has much lower concentrations of psychoactive THC. It’s been used for centuries for making rope, clothes and other items, but growing it was illegal for decades in the U.S.
Earlier this month, the DEA seized 250 pounds of hemp seeds en route to the University of Kentucky from Italy. The package was first flagged by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“It’s ridiculous, if hemp is not being grown in the United States, how are we going to grow it without seeds?” Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., tells U.S. News. “You can buy a granola bar – in whichever city you’re in – with hemp seeds on it. Everything made of hemp is legal to bring into this country.”
Massie introduced the hemp amendment to the farm bill’s House version, alongside Reps. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and Jared Polis, D-Colo. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., championed the hemp provision in the upper chamber and said in a Thursday statement the DEA’s actions are “an outrage.”
A federal law enforcement official says the Department of Justice – DEA’s parent agency – recognizes the law now allows hemp cultivation. But, the law enforcement official said, existing procedures for importing items covered by the Controlled Substances Act must still be followed.
The federal official says Kentucky is to blame for the impasse – which goes to federal court Friday afternoon – for not seeking a controlled substance import permit.
State officials disagree.
“They have changed their position several times, it’s almost been like buying a house,” says Holly Harris VonLuehrte, chief of staff for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. “For some odd reason, the DEA is trying to place unnecessary and, quite frankly, illegal restrictions on Kentucky.”
The DEA first demanded that all six Kentucky colleges with intended pilot programs acquire controlled substance permits, according to VonLuehrte, and then insisted that hemp could not be grown on private land, contrary to the farm bill’s language allowing state-approved sites.
“It’s very clear the DEA was not negotiating in good faith, and we don’t feel that we should have to negotiate: the law is the law, and that’s why we asked a federal judge to intervene. And we sure hope they’ll honor a federal judge’s order,” says VonLuehrte.
“What they’re trying to do is place restrictions on the program that Congress doesn’t allow, and restrictions they know will halt the program entirely. The Department of Agriculture doesn’t have land, it’s not like we have a farm out back to grow hemp. They’re making it so we can’t get the seed and we can’t put it in the ground, and it’s outrageous.”
VonLuehrte finds it ironic that the DEA is targeting Kentucky’s hemp program while tolerating marijuana legalization in Colorado, which is unfolding in direct violation of federal law.
Kentucky’s agriculture commissioner say the state faces immediate and irreparable harm if the seeds aren’t planted by June 1.
“We’ve done everything right, but this federal agency is standing in our way and violating federal law,” Commissioner James Comer tells U.S. News. “I decided enough is enough, someone has to stand up for the small businesses in Kentucky.”
Comer’s office sees industrial hemp as a possible niche industry for the state, which suffered recent economic blows when Fruit of the Loom and Toyota moved jobs out of state.
The 2014 pilot program was slated to involve universities and feature hemp patches planted on private land as part of public-private partnerships.
“The DEA doesn’t determine the law, Congress determines the law,” Comer says. “That’s a problem we’ve got in our country: These government agencies have taken on a life of their own … and their number one priority, it seems, is self-preservation.”
Comer says the DEA is “trying to stall, to derail the whole project.”
But, he says, “We have gotten other shipments in, we haven’t really talked about that.” Some of those seeds have been planted, he said.
Massie blames the DEA’s actions on mixed messages from Obama, and says he wants the president to directly address the issue.
“We don’t need more legislation,” Massie says. “If they won’t respect the laws that Congress has passed, it won’t do us any good to pass another law.”
The DEA is led by Michele Leonhart, who is deeply unpopular with cannabis reform advocates. In January she denounced Obama for saying marijuana is less harmful than alcohol – prompting a petition campaign advocating her firing on grounds of insubordination.
Leonhart told a crowd of sheriffs the lowest point in her 33-year career was when a hemp flag flew above the U.S. Capitol on July 4 at the request of Polis.
In an emailed statement, Polis tells U.S. News he’s hearing from residents of his state – the only U.S. jurisdiction currently regulating a recreational marijuana market – about trouble with hemp seeds.
“Making sure that farmers have access to a sufficient supply of hemp seed is critical to the success of this burgeoning industry,” Polis says. “I would hope that the DEA would have a better use for their resources than impounding seeds that have no narcotic use.”