LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Officials with the Kentucky Agriculture Department agreed on Friday to apply for a federal permit as they seek the release of detained seeds meant for industrial hemp production.
An hour-long conference in federal court left unsettled the question of whether private farmers could grow hemp in coordination with the state. Lawyers with the U.S. Attorney's office in Louisville didn't immediately agree to that, but said the state and the six universities planning to conduct hemp research could obtain their seeds as soon as next week with the permit.
The Agriculture Department is suing several federal agencies for seizing 250 pounds of hemp seeds imported from Italy. While the case remains in legal limbo, it has become national news and led to a call on social media to "free the seeds."
"We made great progress today," said Holly Harris VonLuehrte, general counsel for the state Agriculture Department. "I'm so grateful that we were finally able to get an answer."
U.S. District Judge John Heyburn II scheduled another meeting for Wednesday to check on the two sides' progress. Attorneys said the permit may be granted and seeds distributed to universities by then. Agriculture Department lawyers agreed to have draft agreements with the third-party farmers ready for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to review.
The Agriculture Department wants the federal government to release the seeds quickly, citing research that shows crops planted after June 1 generate unreliable data.
Agents detained the seeds at Louisville International Airport days ago, saying the product remains classified as an illegal drug under federal law -- unless a state agriculture department files an application under the federal Farm Bill approved earlier this year.
Ben Schecter, an assistant U.S. Attorney from Louisville, repeatedly said federal law requires the state to apply. He questioned why the state hadn't already done so, saying the Agriculture Department "could have had its seeds today" if it had.
Schecter was representing all defendants, including the DEA, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Justice Department, and Attorney General Eric Holder.
Kentucky Agriculture Department lawyers argued before Heyburn that the four-page application and one-page permit was "unduly burdensome" because the federal government could deny third-party growers.
Unlike third-party growers, universities wouldn't have to register under the law.
"We're just talking about a week here, VonLuehrte said. "The important thing was to get the hemp in the ground by June 1, and I think we'll be able to move forward."
An pilot project planned for the University of Louisville is on hold because of unresolved issues. The university and Metro government officials have been discussing planting industrial hemp on a brownfield site to test its ability to remove toxins from the soil.
While the university has identified potential researchers, it still needs funding for the project and a site to perform the tests, U of L spokesman Mark Hebert said Friday.
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