LOUISVILLE — A week after suing the federal government for the release of a shipment of hemp to plant, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture appears to be on the verge of getting its seeds.
After a second conference with U.S. District Judge John Heyburn on Wednesday, the KDA and the Drug Enforcement Administration reached a deal: the state, now a licensed importer of controlled substances as of Tuesday, will file paperwork for a permit to plant.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ben Schecter, representing the Justice Department and the DEA, said once the permit is approved the seeds could be released immediately.
"We're waiting for this application," Schecter told Heyburn. "Once it's approved, the logistics are what the logistics are." The DEA had received the permit and was reviewing it Wednesday night as the seed continued to be held at the Louisville airport.
In an effort to speed the process along, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, met late Wednesday with DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart.
"I again expressed my frustration that the DEA is using its finite resources to stymie plainly lawful hemp pilot projects at the very time Kentucky is facing growing threats from heroin addiction and other drug abuse," McConnell said in a statement afterward.
"I called on the DEA administrator to release the industrial hemp seeds so that Kentucky can begin its pilot program," McConnell said. "I also stressed that as the author of the industrial hemp provision, the intent of this provision is to allow states' departments of agriculture and universities to explore the commercial use of industrial hemp as a means for job creation and economic development. The language expressly exempts hemp from federal regulation for these defined purposes."
According to McConnell's office, Leonhart pledged to expedite review of Kentucky's pending import permit, apparently, the last bureaucratic hurdle before release of the industrial hemp seeds.
The KDA sued the Justice Department, the DEA, U.S. customs and Border Protection and Attorney General Eric Holder last week to force the release of 250 pounds of Italian hemp seed imported for several pilot projects.
The Farm Bill approved this year, with McConnell's language, and signed by President Obama allows state departments of agriculture and institutes of higher learning to grow hemp legally for the first time in decades.
One hitch remains for Kentucky: Agriculture Commissioner James Comer had planned to grow some of the hemp using private farmers. The DEA originally said that wasn't possible.
But Heyburn negotiated a compromise: the farmers could be made extensions of the KDA by memos of understanding that require them to adhere to state and federal regulations.
"In concept, this seems not any different (from research institutions growing it), Heyburn said. "It seems as though what we've outlined here ties it down pretty well."
Schecter said the permit can proceed while the DEA continues to evaluate policy.
Comer's chief of staff, Holly Harris Von Luehrte, said afterward that Comer would be speaking with the six universities to decide which ones get seed and how much.
She said that ideally the seeds need to be planted by June 1.
At least three private growers who are working with state universities should still be able to plant and grow hemp this year, she said.
A planting planned for Rockcastle County was delayed pending the outcome of the case.
For now, Heyburn issued no official order but left open the possibility of further intervention to mediate the issues.
Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl.