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DEA to release Kentucky hemp seed shipment

State’s hemp research projects had been on hold after customs officials stopped 250-pound shipment of seeds from Italy

A Kentucky Agriculture Department official announced on Friday that the state has received a federal permit to release an impounded shipment of hemp seeds for spring planting. Federal drug agents had seized the shipment because hemp is related to marijuana.

The department expected to receive the seeds by the weekend, according to Holly Harris VonLuehrte, chief of staff to Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.

Kentucky's pilot hemp projects for research were put on hold after U.S. customs officials in Louisville earlier this month stopped the 250-pound seed shipment from Italy.

Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents seized the seeds on May 12 despite Congress’ approval this year of the Farm Bill, which allows agriculture departments to designate hemp pilot projects for research in certain states. Kentucky subsequently sued the federal government in hopes of freeing the seeds.

Growing hemp may now be legal, but importing the seeds for research remains outlawed, according to DEA officials. Growing hemp without a permit was prohibited in 1970 because of its classification as a controlled substance for its relation to marijuana. The plants are of the same species.

Kentucky last year passed a law that establishes a regulatory framework for growing the plant. The measure defines hemp as containing less than 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive ingredient found in pot.

Eight test projects are planned in Kentucky as part of a small-scale comeback for the long-banned crop. Some projects will look at hemp's potential as a biofuel and construction material, according to VonLuehrte.

Kentucky has been at the forefront of efforts to revive the versatile crop, which can be used for clothing fiber as well as in biodegradable plastic and paper products.  

The lawsuit was closely watched in other states, 15 of which have removed barriers to hemp production, according to the group Vote Hemp.

Vote Hemp spokeswoman Lauren Stansbury said the DEA's release of the seeds in Kentucky "sets enormous precedent."

"We'll continue to oppose the DEA's claim to authority in this area, as federal authority over hemp cultivation must be rightfully acknowledged and administered under the U.S. Department of Agriculture," she said.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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