Not long ago in America’s history, hemp was king. “Make the most of the hemp seed and grow it everywhere,” George Washington instructed his new America.
So vital to our young nation’s success was hemp, that the 1619 Virginia Assembly actually deemed it illegal for farmers not to grow the plant. It’s strange then, given how deeply entrenched hemp once was in the American landscape, to watch Kentucky fight the Department of Justice—not only for the right to grow it, but the seeds to do so.
After challenging the Drug Enforcement Administration’s decision to seize 250 pounds of seeds from the Louisville Airport in court last Friday, the Kentucky Agriculture Department will meet the feds across the aisle Wednesday. The fate of hemp production in America hangs in the balance. So how did hemp go wrong?
In the mid-1700s, hemp—derived from the same plant as marijuana—was ubiquitous, used for everything from food to fabric. While originating from cannabis sativa, like pot, it contains only a negligible amount of THC (the psychedelic chemical in weed). Those trying to get high from hemp are likely to have about as much luck as those chugging O'Doul's. If marijuana’s game is calming, hemp’s is commerce.
But as decades passed, nylon and materials stole hemp’s thunder. Then came the war on drugs and with it, innocent casualties. Hemp, too close to reefer madness for comfort, was one of them.
If not for movies like Dazed and Confused, hemp would have all but disappeared from American discourse. But with the passing of the 2014 Farm Bill this year, including an amendment to allow certain state departments to grow hemp for research, a revelous reunion seemed at hand: an opportunity for the 10 states with legislation allowing hemp production to be leaders in a new, promising industry.
But while growing hemp seeds for research at the state level is now legal, importing the seeds to do so still isn’t, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
It’s a fact Kentucky officials learned the hard way when the 250 pounds of seeds they’d flown in from Italy were swiftly handed over to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Officials. Infuriated by the seizure, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture (KDA) lashed out publicly, eliciting a response from the Department of Justice, who swiftly defended the DEA. In a letter Tuesday, Deputy Assistant Administrator Office of Diversion Control Joseph T. Rannazzisi explains why the DEA acted appropriately. “No person may import cannabis seeds unless such a person is registered with the DEA to do so and has obtained the requisite permit,” Rannazzisi writes, before proposing a plan of action for the KDA to apply for a permit.
The DOJ considered this a quick and easy solution. The KDA did not, filing a lawsuit mere hours after the letter was released claiming the DEA was “engrafting additional regulatory and bureaucratic requirements.” The DOJ disagrees, saying that these are existing procedures in place that are not trumped by the Farm Bill. In court Friday, the first hearing on the case, the judge instructed the state of Kentucky to apply for the license as instructed by the DEA. Once this goes through, the feds have allegedly agreed to hand the seeds over. But even if they do, hempgate may be far from over.
While the Farm Bill allows for private farmers in Kentucky to grow hemp under the supervision of the government, the DEA is allegedly only going to honor that right for universities and the agriculture agency itself. In the view of Jonathan Miller, former Kentucky state treasurer and now a member of the industrial hemp commission, this is beyond ridiculous—defeating the purpose of the entire amendment. “The DEA said private farmers can’t grow it because the legislation only mentioned the universities and the department of agriculture. Well, our department of agriculture is an office building,” Miller says. “The logic is missing. Did Congress intend for only [Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner] James Comer to be able to plant seeds in a patch of garden outside his office?”
The No. 1 producer of hemp in the 19th century, Kentucky has high hopes that hemp can turn the tide of its broken financial system. Now, they’re not so sure. “My state is really suffering economically. This is a crop that can grow abundantly and produce so many jobs,” says Miller. Referring to himself as a “recovering politician,” he believes it’s fear of change, not policy, that’s driving the fight. “I have the greatest respect for law enforcement, they have a tough job. But law enforcement and the DEA have such a fierce opposition to drugs. They think anything that’s a distant cousin of marijuana could possibly get you high. It’s an internal bureaucratic resistance to change.”
The DOJ, for one, is sticking with the facts. “The Court has instructed Kentucky’s state agricultural department to apply for the appropriate DEA permits to obtain the hemp seeds at issue,” Ellen Canale, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Justice, tells (PDF) The Daily Beast. “The DEA will continue to work with state officials so the state can lawfully obtain the seeds.”
As they battle it out once more in court Wednesday, all eyes will be on Kentucky—including, most likely, those of Congress, which for once is united behind a cause. Miller, who’s been in politics for 20 years, calls the congressional support of hemp “breathtaking.” “I have never seen something move in such a bipartisan way…it’s been crazy. Most everyone was against it only a year and a half ago, but now you have Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell standing arm and arm, supporting it.”
Even more than supporting it, they’re now aggressively fighting the DEA for it. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told Politico he was appalled by the DEA’s action. “It is an outrage that DEA is using finite taxpayer dollars to impound legal industrial hemp seeds,” he said. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Rep. Earl Blumenauer described the situation as showing how “incredibly out of touch with America” the DEA is. (The DEA declined to comment for this article).
Whatever happens Wednesday, it will prove vital to the other nine states that are soon to follow in Kentucky’s footsteps. If the DEA obliges, they may soon be hitting the farming lottery. “Is [hemp] a panacea? No,” says Miller. “But in this tough economy it only makes sense to give farmers this new option. There’s no reason to treat them like drug dealers.”
It’s safe to say America is hooking back up with hemp. Or, in Facebook-speak, “it’s complicated.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article referred to Becks beer, which contains alcohol, instead of O’Doul’s, which does not.