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The Fight Behind the New Kentucky Hemp Farm

A field of beautiful Kentucky hemp under a big blue sky.


The Fight Behind the New Kentucky Hemp Farm

In news that has swung wildly by day, the state of Kentucky is suing the DEA demanding that they release 250 pounds of imported Italian hemp seed that the agency has seized before it could be planted. In the latest news, Kentucky Senator and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who worked to pass an amendment to the U.S. Farm Bill allowing hemp research in states that have legalized the crop, has called for the DEA to release the seed.

Dave West, a plant geneticist and breeder, told Cannabis Now that it makes sense for Kentucky to start with Italian hemp seed because the Italians are known to have had the best hemp fiber varieties, and their country lies at the lowest latitude in Europe, and is therefore closest to Kentucky’s.

After working for 20 years on maize, West turned his attention to hemp in the early ’90s, traveling the world to meet with plant breeders in Europe and Japan. He was the principal investigator for the Hawaii Industrial Hemp Project that grew hemp from 1999-2003, for which he received DEA licenses to handle and import hemp seeds from the Clinton administration.

After he “got the cross,” breeding plants that would grow 10 feet tall in the low latitude of Hawaii, the project was closed and the new Bush-era, post 9/11 DEA insisted he destroy all the seeds, which he did with a coffee grinder in their presence.

In his article “Fiber Wars,” and other writings, West lays out the case for preserving what little hemp germplasm we have left in the U.S. and details the sad story of what became of it.

In 1994 he contacted The National Seed Storage Laboratory (now called the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation) in Fort Collins, Colo., which preserves the nation’s germplasm as a safeguard against national disaster. He found out that in the early 1960s, 10 bags of hemp seed grown in 1948, the only known remnant of prized Kentucky hemp varieties, were transferred to NSSL from the USDA, but that they had not been properly preserved and were no longer viable.

West, who is featured in Doug Fine’s new book “Hemp Bound”, thinks Kentucky should work on gathering seeds from feral hemp stands in the state and establish legal protections for those stands “in recognition of the genetic treasure they hold.”

But, he stresses, there is a big difference between growing a feral crop and one that is an agricultural producer. Hemp is years behind in breeding, but is starting to catch up, as researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder and a group in Minnesota are starting to make a genetic map of the plant in the way that West did for corn.

Time is of the essence if the U.S. government wants to right the wrong it has repeatedly committed against hemp’s germplasm, including the DEA’s eradication of feral hemp. The agency simply has to delay their approval to ruin Kentucky’s chances to complete their research project this year.

According to Vote Hemp, a national organization that lobbies for hemp legalization, a DEA license is not required to grow hemp for research purposes, provided the grower is registered and certified by their state department of agriculture.

However, according to Vote Hemp, “Official policy on the importation of hemp seed needs to be worked out with the Department of Justice and Customs and Border Patrol.” The Farm Bill has language supposedly negating the Controlled Substances Act when it comes to hemp for research purposes and how long the courts will take to decide the matter will sink the project, or let it swim.

Leading the fight for the Kentucky hemp project is James Comer, a Tea Party Republican who was a state representative before his election as state agricultural commissioner in 2012. One of the first things Comer did upon his election was re-establish the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission and help pass the state’s hemp legalization bill.

The DEA and its director Michelle Leonhart are increasingly under fire as the agency departs from the Obama administration’s public stance on medical marijuana, mandatory minimums and now hemp. Leonhart recently said the darkest day of her career was the one on which a hemp flag was flown over the U.S. Capitol building and argued that we must enforce marijuana prohibition in order to protect dogs.

McConnell, meanwhile, is in a contested race in Kentucky where $100 million is expected to be spent, an unprecedented figure. Will his re-election turn on hemp? Stay tuned.

UPDATE: 05/16/2014:

Michelle Leonhart has softened her rhetoric on mandatory minimums a bit, after reportedly meeting with AG Holder.

KY Ag officials were in court today and will by applying for a DEA license, hopeful that third-party farms will be allowed (but still under contention).

What do you think about the DEA blocking the hemp farm in Kentucky? Tell us in the comments below.

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