Kentucky sues federal government over hemp seeds

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky's Agriculture Department sued the federal government Wednesday, seeking the release of imported hemp seeds that have been held up by customs officials.

The state said it needs to get the seeds in the ground for the spring season and each day they are held up jeopardizes the yield.

The 250-pound shipment from Italy has been held for more than a week by customs officials in Louisville.

"No state should have to endure what Kentucky has gone through in this process. We must take a stand against federal government overreach," Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said.

Defendants in the lawsuit include the Justice Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Attorney General Eric Holder. The Justice Department did not immediately comment.

Hemp production was banned decades ago when the federal government classified the crop 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.

The crop's comeback took root with passage of a new federal farm bill. It allows state agriculture departments to designate hemp pilot projects for research in states such as Kentucky that allow hemp growing.

The Kentucky Agriculture Department wants to use the seeds in pilot projects to study hemp's potential in a state where it once flourished as a cash crop. Hemp was historically used for rope but can also be fashioned into clothing, food such as hemp milk and cooking oil from the seeds, and creams, soap and lotions.

A half-dozen universities in the state are doing the research. Private farmers and universities are supplying the land and labor.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called on the federal officials to immediately release the hemp seeds. The Republican said the pilot projects would lead to more economic opportunities in Kentucky.

"It is an outrage that DEA is using finite taxpayer dollars to impound legal industrial hemp seeds," McConnell said.

Comer's chief of staff, Holly Harris VonLuehrte, said Wednesday that federal drug enforcement officials wanted the state to apply for a permit that would be burdensome for the pilot projects. After several rounds of discussions, the department decided to go to court.

In Colorado, state agriculture authorities have approved more than 100 hemp-growing operations. Most of it will be small in scale, though, 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.

Colorado legalized hemp and marijuana in 2012.