By Cassandra Dowell
This time last year Tennessee passed legislation to allow for the growing of industrial hemp in the state, and farmers who signed up to participate are now able to move forward with cultivation of the crop.
On May 8, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., praised the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s decision to approve the state of Tennessee’s application to import certified industrial hemp seeds for research purposes.
The DEA’s recent decision follows months of the agency dragging its feet, prompting some advocate investors to wonder if the state would take action against the DEA, as done by its northern neighbor Kentucky in a case also relating to hemp production.
The Bluegrass State’s Agriculture Department filed a lawsuit last year seeking release of imported hemp seeds that the federal government had detained. The suit was filed against the DEA, among other entities. The courts sided with Kentucky, and hemp growing is now underway in the state.
Finally, Tennessee is no longer waiting on the DEA to move forward. The DEA had asked state officials for more details on planned uses for the hemp crop before issuing a seed import permit. Without this permit, the seeds could be seized by the DEA.
The production of hemp is legal in at least 19 states and the Farm Bill enables those states to research hemp. In the United States, about $500 million worth of hemp product is imported every year, according to Hemp Industry Association. The potential of the crop to revitalize the farming scene in Tennessee isn’t lost on farmers or investors, all of whom are watching how the pilot program will take shape in the state.
“The window of the best optimal planting time is coming to a close — it could take two to six weeks to get the hemp seed here, even after getting the permit from the DEA,” said Colleen Sauvé, founder and president of Tennessee Hemp Industries Association, noting the urgency in receiving the permit as soon as possible. “Tennessee needs a new crop. The state has seen a major reduction in tobacco farming.”
Tennessee’s Department of Agriculture and hemp advocacy groups had considered a lawsuit, but instead developed an action plan to get legislators involved to ask the DEA to expedite the permit, Sauvé said.
Last month, Alexander and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., sent a letter to then-Attorney General Eric Holder requesting that the Tennessee Department of Agriculture’s application, which had been filed with the DEA last year, be approved.
At that time, Sauvé said, “We’re at the mercy of the DEA.”
The DEA also expressed concerns about the land mass Tennessee plans to involve in hemp farming. Tennessee applied for more than 2,000 acres to be used among the 53 farmers granted licenses, but the DEA claimed that amount is outside the scope and spirit of agricultural pilot research, as mandated by the Farm Bill.
“We contended that is not the case,” Sauvé said, noting that federal agricultural pilot projects involving other crops far surpass Tennessee’s requested land amount. “We were not going to concede.”
There was also another option for the state to move forward with hemp cultivation, and one other states that find themselves in a similar position might consider: bypass the DEA all together. The federal spending bill includes an amendment that prohibits the Department of Justice from using funds to go after state-legal medical cannabis programs, yet the DEA continues to crack down on medical marijuana dispensaries. Both hemp and cannabis come from Cannabis Sativa L.
“I wish we weren’t involving the DEA,” Sauvé said, noting the administration is technically barred from interfering with legal hemp. “The reason the DEA was included is because in a lot of people’s minds they do have the power to inflict injury on farmers by seizing property. That’ is why the state is being so transparent and cooperating.”
Now that the DEA has given the green light to import cannabis seeds for hemp production, Tennessee may soon be saying farewell to tobacco and hello to hemp.