FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Tiny hemp seeds that produced a drawn-out legal fight were freed from confinement and delivered Friday to Kentucky's Agriculture Department for experimental plantings, marking a limited comeback for the non-intoxicating cousin of marijuana.
The seeds from Italy that drew so much suspicion from federal drug officials were unceremoniously unloaded from a UPS truck and then weighed by state agriculture officials. The shipment featuring 13 seed varieties came in at 286 pounds.
It marked an uneventful conclusion to a standoff that pitted the state's Agriculture Department against the federal government. Seed deliveries for pilot projects across Kentucky could start as early as Friday, with plans to put the seeds in Kentucky soil in coming days.
State Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, a Republican who sees hemp as a potential cash crop for farmers and a jobs creator for processors, said the arrival of the seeds puts Kentucky at the forefront of efforts to reintroduce the long-banned crop in the United States.
"As this program grows, so too will opportunities for our farmers and jobs for all Kentuckians," he said in a statement. The seeds were detained for two weeks by U.S. customs officials in Louisville, Kentucky, delaying pilot growing projects meant to gauge the crop's potential. Six universities are assisting with the research for the highly versatile crop.
Eastern Kentucky University agriculture professor Bruce Pratt said his team prepared 3 acres on the school's farm for hemp plantings. "We're excited to get this research project started," he said Friday.
The crop thrived in Kentucky decades ago, and he thinks it has potential as a viable crop for the state's farmers. His research team will assess the success of different seed varieties, which could someday help guide Kentucky farmers if the crop is eventually allowed to take its place in production agriculture.
The key would be developing markets for the crop, which could lure processors to Kentucky, he said. "If we can get some of that competitive advantage being one of the first states to be able to develop this as a crop to attract those processors, it has potential," Pratt said. "It's not going to happen overnight. It will take several years to fully develop."
Growing hemp without a federal permit was banned in 1970 due to its classification as a controlled substance related to marijuana. Hemp and marijuana are the same species, Cannabis sativa, but hemp has a negligible amount of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high. Hemp's comeback resulted from the new federal farm bill, which allows state agriculture departments to designate hemp pilot projects for research in states such as Kentucky that allow hemp growing.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky crafted the hemp language inserted into the farm bill. "Now that the seeds have been freed, it's time to get them in the ground and begin our lawful pilot programs to explore the potential for job creation in our commonwealth," he said in a statement.
Hemp has historically been used for rope but has many other uses: clothing and mulch from the fiber; hemp milk and cooking oil from the seeds; and soap and lotions. The seeds were sprung from confinement after federal drug officials approved a permit Thursday that ended the legal standoff. The breakthrough occurred after attorneys for the Agriculture Department and federal government met twice with a federal judge.
The state Agriculture Department sued the federal government after the seed shipment was detained. Defendants included the Justice Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The legal fight was closely watched in other states. Fifteen states have removed barriers to hemp production, according to the group Vote Hemp. Now the focus will shift from the federal courthouse to the small plots where the hemp will be planted.
Adam Watson, industrial hemp coordinator for the state Agriculture Department, said each test project in Kentucky should receive enough seeds to successfully complete their research goals. Officials expect to learn much from the first plantings but will need data from a handful of years for more complete crop assessments, he said.
"It's been such a long period of time since any hemp has been grown in Kentucky we really don't know what we're dealing with," he said. "So the purpose of all these research projects is to evaluate how these varieties perform and what's the best method for Kentucky producers to grow it."