LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Plans for Kentucky's first hemp crop in decades so far have produced nothing but headaches.
A shipment of imported seeds was seized by U.S. customs officials, leading Kentucky's Agriculture Department to sue the federal government. The dispute delayed plantings that were supposed to happen this week, and now universities that enthusiastically volunteered to research the crop's potential are all of the sudden jittery because law enforcement is involved.
Growing hemp without a federal permit was banned in 1970 when the government classified the crop as a controlled substance related to marijuana. But imported hemp products, such as clothing, foods and lotions, have been allowed, and the industry is growing in the United States.
In 2013, the total retail value of hemp products sold in the U.S. reached $581 million, according to the California-based Hemp Industries Association. Much of the hemp comes from China, Canada and Europe.
With business booming, more than a dozen states wanted to see if they could cash in, too. Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell crafted language in the federal farm bill that allowed states to start pilot growing projects this year.
In Kentucky, several universities planned on researching the viability of hemp, but state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who sued the federal government Wednesday over a seed shipment from Italy, said the legal entanglement has been "nerve-wracking" for the schools.
"They were wanting to have ceremonies for seed plantings to talk about the research they were going to do," he said. "And now the federal government has confiscated ... seeds. They're a little gun shy at this point."
Kentucky has been at the forefront of efforts to revive the versatile crop and the lawsuit is being closely watched by agriculture officials in other states. So far, Kentucky has secured seeds from California, where the suppliers apparently got them from abroad. A group of military veterans interested in hemp farming planned to drop them into the ground Friday in Rockcastle County, but that half-acre planting is on hold while the lawsuit plays out.
Michael Lewis, a farmer heading up the project, said the delay could jeopardize the yield. Farmers believe most of the seeds need to be in the ground by the end of this month to have a good crop. "We're frustrated, but we're ready to work it out," Lewis said.
Comer, a Republican who is considering a run for governor next year, said the federal government was overreaching by holding up the 250-pound batch of seeds, which would be enough to plant seven or eight acres.
Defendants in the lawsuit include the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Justice Department, which said it generally does not comment on pending litigation. 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.
In Colorado, where marijuana and hemp were legalized in 2012, state agriculture officials have approved more than 100 hemp-growing operations. Most of it will be small in scale, with total production coming in at less than 1,700 acres. A handful of farmers also raised hemp there last year, in defiance of federal law, but no data was available on the overall size of the crop.
Hemp has a long history in the United States. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew the crop, which was historically used for rope but has hundreds of other uses. Kentucky was known for its production in the 1800s, but there are still questions about whether it would take root once again as a cash crop.
"With uncertainty on yield potential, markets and prices, profitability is a real conjecture at this point," University of Kentucky agricultural economist Will Snell said.
Associated Press writer Kristen Wyatt in Denver contributed to this report.