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Ky. ag officials report progress in resolving suit

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Attorneys summoned before a federal judge made headway Friday toward ending a stalemate over a detained shipment of hemp seeds that spurred the Kentucky Agriculture Department to sue the federal government, a top department official said.

Discussions presided over by U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II didn't resolve the dispute over the 250 pounds of seeds from Italy meant to be planted as part of test projects to gauge the crop's viability. The seeds are still being detained by U.S. customs officials in Louisville.

Holly Harris VonLuehrte, chief of staff to Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, said she was encouraged by the conference and said the state agency planned to go through a registration process to obtain an import permit that would free up the seeds.

"We're going to, I think, sit down with the DEA and get this worked out," she told reporters afterward.

Defendants in the lawsuit filed this week include the Justice Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Attorney General Eric Holder.

DEA proposed the permitting process in earlier discussions with the state's agriculture officials, the Justice Department said in a statement.

"The DEA will continue to work with state officials so the state can lawfully obtain the seeds," the statement said.

Comer, a Republican who is considering a run for governor next year, has called the seed standoff an example of an overreaching federal government. He has said the DEA permitting process would have imposed undue burdens on the pilot projects.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ben Schecter said Friday that the DEA would expedite any review so a permit could be issued within days of the application.

"We're committed to being a partner, not an adversary," he said during the conference.

One issue still unresolved was whether private farmers could participate in the projects.

The attorneys are scheduled to meet with the judge again next Wednesday.

Eight hemp pilot projects are planned in Kentucky, with six universities helping with research.

VonLuehrte said total production is expected to be less than 20 acres for the long-banned crop.

At the conference, Schecter laid out the federal government's reason for detaining the hemp seeds. Hemp remains classified as a controlled substance related to marijuana, he said. Growing hemp without a federal permit was banned in 1970 due to the classification.

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. The crop's comeback took root with passage of the new federal farm bill. It allows state agriculture departments to designate hemp pilot projects for research in states such as Kentucky that allow hemp growing.

A group of military veterans interested in hemp farming had planned to drop some hemp seeds in the ground Friday, but Comer's office asked that the half-acre planting be put on hold while the lawsuit plays out.

Kentucky has been at the forefront of efforts to revive the crop. Hemp was historically used for rope but has many other uses: clothing and mulch from the fiber; hemp milk and cooking oil from the seeds, and soap and lotions.

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