Photos by Brian Powers
Story by Everett McMillen Cislo

n order to begin a new pilot project planned in its state, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture needed to sue the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The lawsuit was successful. The spoils were 250 pounds of hemp seeds. In the summer of 2014, WKU, along with five other Kentucky universities and a handful of Kentucky farmers, took part in an agricultural study investigating the effectiveness of growing industrial hemp in the Kentucky landscape.

The first-ever Kentucky hemp crop grew in Danville in 1775, according to the Kentucky Historical Society. Hemp was one of the oldest crops to be produced in the Bluegrass State.

WKU collaborated with University of Kentucky for the study. Both universities used the same amount of seeds, space and time.

“The research we did here was replicated in the Lexington climate with the Lexington soils,” said Paul Woosley, an associate plant science professor who worked with almost 20 other WKU professors and graduate and undergraduate students for the project. When WKU received its portion of the imported hemp seeds, it started planting at the University Farm.

Those involved with the project planted 13 different types of hemp over half an acre of land. All the seeds were planted during June 2014 and were studied until harvest in October.

Because hemp was still a Schedule-I controlled substance, an illegal material requiring a permit to grow and harvest, WKU was limited with what it could do with the harvested materials.

Woosley thought further research could be done with the fibrous hemp stalks to help agricultural manufacturers develop better equipment for harvesting hemp. Another option was to study the seeds and attempt to alter their design on a genetic level. The WKU researchers wanted to increase their crop’s resistance to other plants that could hinder its growth.

Hemp plants stand ready to be cut and counted at the WKU Ag Farm on September 11, 2014. The plot is one of six test plots around the state set up to explore the feasibility of the crop in Kentucky.

Hemp suffered from a relatively negative reputation because of its close relationship with a family member — marijuana.

Both belonged to the same genus, Cannabis sativa, and their seeds were virtually identical. They were frequently mistaken for each other.

Even an experienced professional such as Woosley confirmed their remarkable visual similarities. He admitted that if a stalk, leaf and seed from each plant were in front of him, telling them apart would be very difficult.

Only on a chemical level did the differences become readily apparent. Marijuana had an enzyme that created sizable amounts of THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive chemical that gave the plant its mind-altering effects. Hemp lacked the necessary enzyme to produce even minimal amounts of THC.

According to the North American Industrial Hemp Council, if a person were to ingest enough hemp to feel any effects, he or she would also be taking the equivalent of two to three doses of high-fiber laxatives.

Documentation of hemp crop legality in Kentucky.

Woosley said fear of the plants being grown together was unfounded. Even though the plants were related, they could not be grown together.

If the pollen from a hemp plant came into contact with a marijuana plant, the hemp plant would pollute the marijuana and deteriorate the THC within.

Each plant was bred for entirely different reasons. According to the North American Industrial Hemp Council, hemp was bred only for use in fibers, oils and usable seeds. Marijuana was bred solely for THC.

The DEA seized the first shipment of WKU’s hemp seeds.

The Department of Agriculture cited the 2014 Farm Bill that allowed the production of hemp. It took the case to federal court in Louisville and sued the DEA for the return of the confiscated seeds.

Luke Morgan, a Lexington-based litigation lawyer who served as the legal representation for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, met with the DEA and presiding judge two times over the course of the lawsuit.

When the randomly assigned case landed on the desk of Senior District Judge John Heyburn, the tides turned for Kentucky hemp.

Morgan said he appreciated the judge’s grasp of the issue and the judge’s understanding of the timeliness of the hemp-planting process.

Before helping to harvest the crop, Cole Fields, of Bowling Green, walk through one of the hemp test plots at the University Farm on Sept. 11. The crop was harvested, recorded then destroyed because it was still an illegal crop.

“He clearly recognized this needed to go towards the top of a priority list simply because of the timeliness in terms of planting,” Morgan said. “There is a hard time-cap there on what you can study and how they grow.”

The Kentucky Department of Agriculture was successful, and the DEA was forced to return all the confiscated hemp seeds.

The DEA, however, made one caveat before it would return the confiscated seeds: The Kentucky Department of Agriculture was to apply for an eight-part Federal Controlled Substances Permit. The state of Kentucky was granted a permit.

Josh Hendrix, a Kentucky native and president of the Kentucky Hemp Industries Association, dedicated all of his time to the promotion of hemp in Kentucky and around the country.

“I’m the liaison — I’m just connecting people,” Hendrix said. “Farmer to processor to manufacturer, just trying to figure out how we can build an industry.”

The confiscated seeds were imported from Italy. None were available for purchase in the U.S., and Italy has a similar climate to Kentucky, making it a prime candidate.

Kentucky had to battle for hemp, but Hendrix still believed it to be a leading state for national hemp support.

“We’re ahead of [other states] in terms of rules and regulations,” Hendrix said. “Us and Colorado are leading the charge.”

It was difficult to predict the future of hemp in Kentucky. Hendrix believed the agriculture community would see the benefits of hemp and embrace its presence.

“There is a lot of educating to do in Kentucky, and people are willing to listen,” Hendrix said. “People are curious and inquisitive about it.”

Initially, Woosley was skeptical of hemp. He thought the same was true of many Kentuckians.

“Older generations are more skeptical and part of that is the ignorance of it — thinking that you can smoke hemp and get high,” Woosley said.

The study at WKU was simply an introduction to the world of industrial hemp in Kentucky. Woosley hoped it would help disseminate more basic knowledge about hemp.

He was optimistic about the future, but he knew it would take more than just a successful yield for the crop to stick around.

“Does it mean it’s going to become a major crop?” Woosley said. “I don’t know, because in the end, it’s the almighty dollar [that] dictates what [is going to] be grown.”

Workers find the seeds on a bud off of a hemp stalk at the farm on Sept. 11. The plot was one of six test zones around the state set up to explore the feasibility of the crop.