LOUISVILLE — The Kentucky Department of Agriculture will have to wait a few more days for its hemp seeds, but it looks as if Agriculture Commissioner James Comer will get them in time for spring planting.
Comer sued the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Justice Department and Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday, seeking the release of 250 pounds of Italian hemp seed being held in Louisville.
The federal Farm Bill passed this year allows state departments of agriculture and universities to grow hemp in pilot projects. Kentucky has eight planned across the state.
In a hearing Friday in U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn's chambers, Ben Schecter, assistant U.S. attorney for Louisville, said that if the state will apply for a controlled-substance import permit, the seeds can be released in days.
He suggested that the DEA wants to be "partners rather than adversaries in this."
Comer's chief of staff, Holly Harris VonLuehrte, and Agriculture Department lawyer Luke Morgan said the state would do that if the DEA would allow the department and universities to work with farmers to grow some of the hemp in proposed pilot projects around Kentucky.
Heyburn asked that the Agriculture Department submit a memo of understanding that would spell out terms so the DEA would be able to sign off.
The Agriculture Department will apply for its permit and will submit the names of institutions of higher learning participating in the first legal growing of industrial hemp in the United States in decades.
"As soon as you get the registration as an importer, those seeds can be transferred to respective institutions of higher learning. That can happen Monday or Tuesday?" Heyburn asked, with an indication of agreement from Schecter.
At noon Wednesday, Heyburn will review progress and hear the DEA's response on the growers' agreement.
Schecter said he could not make promises as to what the DEA would allow.
Heyburn suggested that an agreement could be reached that covers the DEA's legal concerns but allows the Agriculture Department and universities to let farmers participate.
The Justice Department issued this statement after the hearing:
"The Court has instructed Kentucky's state Agricultural Department to apply for the appropriate DEA permits to obtain the hemp seeds at issue, which is the process that DEA proposed on May 13. The DEA will continue to work with state officials so the state can lawfully obtain the seeds."
Kentucky agriculture officials were happy with the hearing, which they said fast-tracked the process.
"I think now we can move forward with our pilot programs exactly as we have planned them," said VonLuehrte. "We're going to sit down with the DEA and get this worked out. ... We're thrilled."
Using private farmers has been the sticking point, she said.
"The interest has always been to Commissioner Comer to jumpstart an industry here that could create jobs and opportunities for farmers," she said.
In total, the KDA hopes to grow less than 20 acres of hemp this year in conjunction with the University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, Eastern Kentucky University, Morehead State University, Western Kentucky University and Murray State University.
Four farmers are scheduled to be part of the initial plantings, which Comer's office has said need to be in the ground by June 1 for an optimum crop.
But there is no limit in the federal Farm Bill on the size of the projects, which means that if farmers can be cleared to participate, many more might in future years, especially if the state can establish a processor and successfully market the hemp.
The state still must complete the regulatory process; the administrative regulations have been developed by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, but Gov. Steve Beshear has yet to sign the emergency regulations to put them in place immediately. VonLuerhte said she expects Beshear will sign the regulations.
"I think Commissioner Comer's focus was that we would always have a legally responsible process. We want to be the best state for processors and manufacturers to locate," she said. "And I think we're first."
Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl.