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Kentucky Farmers File Suit Against Federal Government to Legalize Hemp


May-June 1998

On May 15, several Kentucky farmers and agricultural organizations filed a federal lawsuit to allow for the cultivation of industrial hemp in the U.S. (John Cheves, "KY. Farmers Filing Suit in Attempt to Legalize Hemp," Lexington Herald-Leader, May 15, 1998, p. A1; Michael Janofsky, "Farmers Suing Government to Restore Legal Production of Hemp," Washington Post, May 15, 1998, p. A21).

"You can go into any grocery store or co-op today and find all sorts of hemp products," said tobacco farmer Andy Graves. "But as a farmer, I'm not allowed to participate in that part of the economy. I want a judge to explain that to me." Graves is president of the 100-member Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative Association, which is a plaintiff in the suit.

The profits of hemp cultivation have raised the interests of American farmers looking for new cash crops, particularly replacement crops for tobacco. "You grow it and I will buy it," said John Howell of the Hemp Company of America, which has hemp-product stores. "Manufacturers identify hemp as quality goods. ... We want to get the government out of the way between us and money." Graves and Craig Lee, executive director of Kentucky Industrial Hemp Association, said that Kentucky Hemp Growers signed a contingency contract with Mike Hart of Lexington Brewing Company, which makes Kentucky Hemp Beer. Hart said buying domestic hemp could save him at least thirty percent (Janet Patton, "Those Filing Hemp Suit Say Issue Is Money," Lexington Herald-Leader, May 16, 1998).

At the heart of the suit is the botanical difference between hemp and marijuana, said Lexington lawyer Burl McCoy, who helped prepare the suit. Industrial hemp is one variety of the plant genus cannabis, and marijuana is another. However, hemp is ineffective and unappealing as a recreational drug because it contains only a negligible fraction of the psychoactive ingredient, THC, that is typically abundant in marijuana.

The lawsuit seeks a declaratory judgement that would define the rights and obligations of Kentucky farmers seeking to produce industrial hemp. In the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Lexington, the farmers contend Congress did not intend to outlaw hemp as it cracked down on marijuana. Plaintiffs allege that anti-hemp policies are the mistaken interpretation of the DEA and the U.S. Justice Department. The suit names those agencies and Attorney General Janet Reno as defendants. The plaintiffs are being represented by New York attorney Michael Kennedy.

The tall, cane-like hemp was grown widely in the U.S. for at least two centuries, particularly in Kentucky, and its tough fibers are used for products like rope, paper and clothing. But starting in 1937, in an effort to crack down on marijuana, the federal government passed laws restricting most types of cannabis growth and trade. Today, it is illegal to grow hemp in the U.S. However, many products made with hemp are sold in the U.S. but are made from hemp grown in other nations. Canada recently lifted its ban on hemp cultivation to enable its farmers to enter this market ("Canada Ends 60-Year Ban on Commercial Hemp," NewsBriefs, March-April 1998).

Law enforcement and the DEA argue that industrial hemp could camouflage illicit marijuana crops, but industrial hemp cross-pollinates with marijuana, diminishing its quality as an illegal drug. Furthermore, law enforcement in Canada and Europe report no such problems with industrial hemp crops in their countries. "Drug czar" Barry McCaffrey opposes the legalization of hemp, saying it is a novelty product which can only sustain a novelty market (Associated Press, "Farmers sue to lift ban on hemp," May 16, 1998).

Many hemp advocates and plaintiffs in this case say they oppose marijuana legalization. "Our farmers aren't asking to legalize drugs," said Joseph Hickey, executive director of the Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative Association. "One farmer told me, `Why would I want to grow a field full of marijuana?'" Hickey said. "`It would be like having 300,000 cases of beer sitting out there behind two little strands of barbed wire. There would be problems.'"

The University of Kentucky will soon release a study that shows how much hemp could boost Kentucky's economy, Hickey said. Aside from providing a crop potentially as profitable as tobacco, hemp farms probably would lead to high employment processing plants throughout the state that could turn the plant's fiber and seeds into a variety of useful items, he said. "The hemp industry today is where the plastics industry was in the 1920s and '30s," Hickey said. "We could be on the ground floor of something big."

Recently, the state's courts have been the focus of legal challenges to Kentucky's cannabis laws. Last July, Lee Circuit Judge William Trude struck down part of a state law that placed industrial hemp and marijuana in the same legal status ("Kentucky Hemp Law Ruled Unconstitutional," NewsBriefs, August 1997). The defendant in that case, actor Woody Harrelson, challenged the law by planting four hemp seeds in Lee County ("`Cheers' Star, Woody Harrelson, to Protest Anti-Hemp Law, Arrested at Seed Planting," NewsBriefs, Summer 1996). Trude's ruling is pending before the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

In addition to the hemp lawsuit, the North American Industrial Hemp Council is lobbying to change DEA policy so that hemp with less than 1% THC is classified as an agricultural crop.

Attorney Michael Kennedy - 425 Park Ave., 25th Floor, New York, NY 10002, Tel: (212) 935-4500, Fax: (212) 980-6881.

Joe Hickey, Kentucky Hemp Growers' Cooperative Association - <>