Comer says DEA will issue import permit, release hemp seeds

jpatton1@herald-leader.comMay 13, 2014 

After a day of back-and-forth wrangling with Washington, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture will get its hemp seeds.

Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said late Tuesday that the federal Drug Enforcement Administration has agreed to issue an import permit to the Agriculture Department and by the end of the week release 250 pounds of Italian hemp seeds being held by the U.S. Customs Service in Louisville.

"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."

A call to the DEA was referred to the Justice Department, which did not immediately respond to an inquiry for comment.

Comer's office had threatened to go to federal court Wednesday to seek an injunction to get the seeds. Now it looks like that won't be necessary, if the DEA follows through, said Comer's chief of staff, Holly Harris VonLuerhte.

"They are now looking at the law, saying a simple import permit is required and only KDA will have to get one," she said.

At one point during the day's discussions, she said, the DEA had indicated that multiple entities might have to be permitted, or that only the Agriculture Department could grow hemp.

The department and seven universities across the state are planning to plant hemp for research projects this year. To do that, the seed needs to be in the ground by June 1.

This would be the first time in decades that hemp, which was once a top Kentucky crop, is cultivated in the state.

"We are negotiating in good faith," Comer said. "It doesn't sound like this process is unduly burdensome or that we wouldn't get our seed. ... To us, the issue has always been getting the seed in a timely fashion. We just want the project to move forward."

The research projects are permitted under the federal Farm Bill that Congress passed earlier this year. The law allows state departments of agriculture to grow hemp for research. The language distinguishes hemp from marijuana, a related plant that contains a high-inducing compound known as THC.

Some hemp seeds that the state already has will be planted Friday at a research project in Mount Vernon. There, a group of Kentucky veteran farmers called Growing Warriors will grow test plots in conjunction with Kentucky State University.

Six other projects, however, are in jeopardy if enough seed cannot be obtained in time.

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl.

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