Governor signs hemp legalization bill for TN; Kentucky battling feds in court over its hemp law

Gov. Bill Haslam has signed into law a bill that legalizes the growing of hemp in Tennessee while Kentucky officials are battling the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in federal court over a dispute brought on by similar law enacted in that state.

Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, lead sponsor of the Tennessee hemp bill in the state Senate, said he is hopeful that Tennessee will avoid any conflict with federal authorities, perhaps because of Kentucky succeeding in court.

But Niceley also said he fears the move against Kentucky shows “the Obama administration has a double standard,” retreating from enforcement of federal laws prohibiting marijuana in states that have legalized sales while enforcing the law against hemp. The two plants are related – Niceley calls them “cousins” – but hemp has only a tiny fraction of the chemical in marijuana causing a narcotic effect.

DEA agents in Louisville recently seized 250 pounds of hemp seed that Kentucky Department of Agriculture officials had imported from Italy, contending the seed was imported in violation of federal controlled-substance laws. Kentucky officials contend that a provision in this year’s “farm bill” enacted by Congress, which authorizes research into hemp production, removed hemp from the federal controlled substances law.

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer filed a lawsuit against the DEA and other federal agencies Wednesday, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader, and at a hearing Friday U.S. District Court Judge John G. Heyburn told the opposing sides to draft an agreement for submission to the court that would make the state and federal government “partners rather than adversaries.”

Under the proposed arrangement, as reported by the newspaper website, Kentucky would apply for a controlled-substances permit, which would get expedited approval, and federal officials would allow distribution of the seeds to private farmers, a plan they had initially opposed.

Tennessee’s hemp bill (SB2495), sponsored by Niceley in the Senate and Republican Rep. Jeremy Faison of Cosby in the House, was approved unanimously in both the House and Senate, though several legislators – and Haslam – initially voiced skepticism about legalizing the growing and sale of a plant related to marijuana and tied to it in federal law, at least until the recent revision approved by Congress.

But the sponsors argued that the United States already imports more than $500 million worth of hemp annually for use in manufacturing multiple products – the fiber for making rope, upholstery and the like while the resin goes to making plastic substitutes – with demand increasing. They said hemp can also be used to produce ethanol for and, overall, opens an opportunity for Tennessee farmers to produce a product now being imported.

The new law requires would-be growers to obtain a permit from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and subject to an array of restrictions. Most legislative debate centered on a provision that says anyone found in possession of a questionable substance without a permit may be prosecuted for possession of marijuana.

The law takes effect July 1, though the Department of Agriculture is specifically authorized to begin promulgating the required rules once it is signed by the governor.