A federal judge in Louisville has scheduled a hearing for Friday on the Kentucky Department of Agriculture's motion to force the U.S. Justice Department to release imported hemp seeds.
U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II has set a 1 p.m. hearing on a motion for a restraining order and preliminary injunction filed Wednesday by Agriculture Commissioner James Comer. The state has imported 250 pounds of Italian hemp seed that must be planted by June 1. U.S. Customs in Louisville has detained the seeds for more than a week.
Meanwhile, a group of Rockcastle County farmers who plan to legally put hemp seeds in Kentucky soil for the first time in decades have delayed their planting, at least temporarily.
"We've got all these people coming in from all over the country," said Mike Lewis, executive director of Growing Warriors, the group of military veteran farmers who plan to grow hemp in conjunction with Kentucky State University. "We can't do much. We're going to remain hopeful the commissioner will get this worked out."
Lewis said they might have a protest against the Drug Enforcement Administration's actions and stall for time, in case Heyburn hands down a ruling.
"We'll plant some chocolate-covered hemp seeds and point out the hypocrisy of the situation," Lewis said. "And we'll be ready at 1:30 if we get the call."
His group had planned on planting hemp seeds donated by a California company and apparently imported without a problem.
Earlier Thursday, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell called on the DEA to release the hemp seeds that have been held in Louisville.
The Agriculture Department imported the seeds for university research projects, but the DEA has blocked their release, saying the state must have a controlled-substance import permit.
Comer filed a lawsuit Wednesday in federal court in Louisville to force the Justice Department to hand over the seeds.
"No state should have to endure what Kentucky has gone through in this process. We must take a stand against federal government overreach," Comer told The Associated Press.
The defendants in the lawsuit are the DEA, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Justice Department, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. The Justice Department has not commented on the suit.
In a statement released Thursday morning, McConnell weighed in:
"I take a back seat to no one in working to protect Kentucky communities from dangerous drugs such as heroin. It is an outrage that DEA is using finite taxpayer dollars to impound legal industrial hemp seeds. The agency should immediately release the hemp seeds so Kentucky pilot projects can get under way, which will ultimately lead to more economic opportunities in our state."
The Senate minority leader inserted language into the federal Farm Bill earlier this year that allows state departments of agriculture, in conjunction with colleges and universities, to grow industrial hemp for research purposes.
The top Democratic challenger for McConnell's Senate seat, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, said in a statement that she supported the Farm Bill "that allowed Kentucky to move forward with hemp for research, and believes the federal government needs to stop picking on Kentucky on this matter."
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, a longtime advocate for legalizing hemp, also called on the DEA to release the seeds.
"It is completely unacceptable for federal agencies to hold legal hemp seeds that will be used for Kentucky's legal hemp pilot projects," Paul said in a statement. "The seeds should be released immediately so Kentucky can implement the projects and we can move forward with the reintroduction of industrial hemp, which has great potential to create jobs in our state."
Hemp once was a major crop in Kentucky but has long been outlawed along with marijuana, a related plant. The Farm Bill distinguishes hemp because of its negligible levels of THC, the high-inducing compound in marijuana.
The DEA contends that the language legalizes growing but does not address importation, so a controlled substance permit is required. The Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission bought the seed using donated funds.
However, the state Agriculture Department, in its lawsuit, argues that the Farm Bill language specifically supersedes other federal laws, including the Controlled Substances Act and import/export restrictions.
The DEA also has told Comer's office in a letter that the state and the universities cannot assign their authorities to grow hemp to private farmers, calling into question plans to plant hemp on Friday in Mount Vernon.
"There's no question that universities can move forward," said Comer's chief of staff, Holly Harris VonLuerhte. "The questions are the import issues and whether these private farmers can donate land and labor to the KDA and the universities."
Comer's office asked the Rockcastle County farmers to hold off on planting until Heyburn has issued a ruling for fear of putting anyone in jeopardy.
Lauren Stansbury, spokeswoman for Vote Hemp, said her group will be in Rockcastle County to support the Kentucky farmers.
"What's upsetting is this was meant to be a really important day for them, honoring them, many of whom are military veterans," she said. "We're definitely frustrated by this. ... These farmers ought not be liable for arrest. But we just don't want to risk that. We don't want them to spend even one night in jail."
The DEA also has not intervened in states, including Colorado, that legalized marijuana use in 2012.
Colorado agriculture authorities have approved more than 100 hemp-growing operations, The Associated Press reported. Most of it will be small in scale, with total production of less than 1,700 acres.
Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl.