- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 21, 2014

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Attorneys for the Kentucky Agriculture Department and federal government resumed discussions with a judge on Wednesday to try to resolve a standoff over hemp seeds from Italy that customs officials have blocked from reaching fields for spring planting.

Afterward, a top aide to Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer sounded upbeat about getting the seeds in Kentucky soil in coming days.

“It’s a much less adversarial process now,” Comer chief of staff Holly Harris VonLuehrte said. “I’m hopeful that we’ll have this fully resolved.”

Kentucky’s pilot hemp projects for research were put on hold after the 250-pound seed shipment was stopped by U.S. customs officials in Louisville earlier this month. The state’s Agriculture Department then sued the federal government in hopes of freeing the seeds. Defendants include the Justice Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Eight test projects are planned in Kentucky as part of a small-scale comeback for the long-banned crop that once flourished in the state. Six universities in the state plan to help with the research.

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 was spurred by 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.

During the standoff, the state’s ag department cleared one hurdle by getting registered with DEA to import hemp seeds.

Federal officials also inspected the department’s facilities where the seeds would be stored for a short time before they’re sent to fields. The seeds would be safeguarded behind multiple locked doors and in locked containers, VonLuehrte said.

One remaining sticking point was a permit for state agriculture officials to distribute the seeds.

Federal drug officials initially wanted to know precisely how much seed would go to each project, VonLuehrte said.

During Wednesday’s meeting presided over by U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn, the two sides agreed to language allowing the Agriculture Department to indicate that each shipment wouldn’t exceed a certain amount.

The ag department sees that as the final step in the permitting process before obtaining the seeds, VonLuehrte said.

Soon after the meeting, the state agency submitted paperwork to the federal officials, she said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ben Schecter said the DEA would help state officials complete the process.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell met with DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart on Wednesday to discuss the federal agency’s actions in holding up the seeds. McConnell, R-Ky., crafted language in the federal farm bill that allowed states to start pilot growing projects this year.

“I again expressed my frustration that the DEA is using its finite resources to stymie plainly lawful hemp pilot projects at the very time Kentucky is facing growing threats from heroin addiction and other drug abuse, and I called on the DEA administrator to release the industrial hemp seeds so that Kentucky can begin its pilot program,” McConnell said in a statement after the meeting.

The statement said Leonhart reported progress in the negotiations and said she pledged to expedite review of the permitting process.

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