Michael Lewis felt some anxiety when he stepped forward as one of Kentucky's first farmers to test the potential of hemp production, but some recent action by Congress has helped set his mind at ease.
The latest federal farm bill allows states to designate hemp projects for research and development. And now, the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill passed by Congress and sent to President Barack Obama would prohibit federal drug officials from interfering with those projects.
Lewis said Tuesday he sees the latest hemp provision as a way to further legitimize a crop with a multitude of uses. The non-intoxicating plant has been banned for decades due to its family ties to marijuana.
"My name and my reputation are tied up in this," Lewis said. "It's a huge peace of mind to know that we're OK. We thought we should be all along, but now this sort of confirms that. ... It's definitely going to give me an hour or two of extra sleep at night."
Growing hemp without a federal permit was banned in 1970 due to its classification as a controlled substance related to marijuana. Hemp and marijuana are the same species, but hemp has a negligible amount of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.
Kentucky has been at the forefront of efforts to revive the crop, prized for oils, seeds and fiber.
Eighteen states have removed barriers to hemp production, according to Vote Hemp, a group advocating for the plant's legal cultivation. Licensed growers secured seeds in Kentucky, Colorado and Vermont this year, but difficulties in obtaining seeds limited production, the group said.
The newest hemp provision aims to prevent a repeat of the standoff that unfolded in Kentucky last spring, when U.S. customs officials detained a shipment of imported hemp seeds bound for fields. The state's Agriculture Department sued to free the seeds, and the shipment was released from confinement after federal drug officials approved a permit for the seeds.
The seeds later sprouted into 10-foot-tall plants that became part of the state's first legal hemp crop in decades.
"Hopefully it will take the DEA off the trail of hemp seeds," U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., said of the latest hemp provision he championed.
The push to revive hemp has a powerful ally in Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell, the incoming Senate majority leader. McConnell crafted the hemp language inserted into the farm bill and pushed for the language to prevent federal agencies from blocking legal hemp projects.
"These legal pilot programs authorized by my legislation could help boost our state's economy and lead to future jobs," he said.
At least six processors or manufacturers have expressed interest in locating in Kentucky to tap into fledgling hemp production, state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said. He said the ban on using federal funds to stymie legal hemp projects would advance the crop.
"No one wants to make an investment and no farmer wants to plant a crop with the fear that the Obama administration's going to come in and arrest them or confiscate their crop," said Comer, a Republican who is running for Kentucky governor next year.
Hemp products sold in the U.S. last year had a total retail value of at least $581 million, up 24 percent from the prior year, according to the Hemp Industries Association.
State agriculture officials would still need to obtain federal permits for imported seed shipments for the next crop, Comer said. If seeds can be secured, hundreds of acres of hemp could go in the ground next spring in Kentucky, he said.
Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, predicted hemp production will spread to several other states next year.
Lewis said he hopes to have a hand in 50 acres of hemp production next year, up from about 2 acres he helped produce in 2014. Statewide, hemp production was under 50 acres this year, according to the state agriculture department.
"We're not doing anything crazy," Lewis said. "We're growing textiles and plastics and food."