By Erik Altieri, NORML Communications Director
Earlier this week, the Drug Enforcement Agency ordered that 250 pounds of hemp seed be seized at Louisville Airport in Kentucky. The seeds were being imported by the Kentucky government from Italy to plant at state universities in their hemp pilot program. Kentucky legalized industrial hemp in 2013 and the federal government approved legislation this year that allowed states to engage in limited hemp cultivation.
When the DEA refused to return the seeds under reasonable conditions, the Kentucky Agriculture Department filed suit against the Justice Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Attorney General Eric Holder.
On Friday, there was a preliminary hearing regarding the lawsuit. During the hearing, U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II stated that the DEA must explicitly state what would need to be done for those participating in the pilot program to have the seeds returned. Federal officials responded that the Kentucky Department of Agriculture must fill out a narcotics license in addition to providing memorandum of agreement with the departments of universities planning to cultivate the crop.
In an interview discussing the hearing with the Huffington Post, Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer stated, "It sounds like a victory, but I'm not going to declare victory until those seeds go in the ground. It was very positive today. But we've felt pretty good throughout this entire process over the last several weeks, and the DEA would come back and change again. I'm not celebrating. It will be a victory when I have those seeds in hand."
Elected officials across the state have voiced their support for the hemp program and decried the actions of federal officials. US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) stated, "It is an outrage that DEA is using finite taxpayer dollars to impound legal industrial hemp seeds."
According to the Congressional Resource Service, the US is the only developed nation that fails to cultivate industrial hemp as an economic crop. However, in February, members of Congress for the first time approved language in the omnibus federal Farm Bill allowing for the cultivation of industrial hemp in agricultural pilot programs in states that already permit the growth and cultivation of the plant.
The next court hearing is expected to occur on Wednesday, May 21. NORML will keep you updated as the situation evolves.