Two Strains of Cannabis Politics: Hemp and Marijuana in Kentucky 6/16/00

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Cannabis conflicts are bedeviling the Bluegrass State on two fronts. On one, illicit marijuana cultivators are locked in a war of attrition with today's version of the "revenuers," primarily the DEA and their local law enforcement allies in the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA). On the second front, a grassroots movement of farmers, legislators, and industrial hemp advocates continues to mobilize despite a losing effort to pass legislation allowing hemp production this spring. If the hemp activists have their way, never the strains shall meet.

Film and television performer Woody Harrelson's role has crystallized the tensions that arise when the two varieties of cannabis collide. The actor is well known for his advocacy of both hemp and marijuana, and awaits a new round of court appearances stemming from his challenge to Kentucky laws that fail to distinguish between the two. His upcoming trial, set for August 24, is certain to re-ignite debate on all aspects of the cannabis conflicts.

In a press release last week from his Kentucky attorneys, Harrelson declared that, "I have made the decision to go to trial because I believe Kentucky farmers should have the same freedom to grow hemp as farmers in Canada, England and even China. I feel comfortable putting my fate in the hands of the people of Kentucky, believing six of my peers will see the absurdity of this law and refuse to send me to jail."

Harrelson planted four hemp seeds in Lee County in 1996 in a deliberate effort to challenge the state's definition of marijuana, which does not differentiate between low-THC hemp, valued for its fibers, and high-THC marijuana, desired for its mind-altering effects. He won in Circuit Court and again when the state appealed, but the verdict was overturned by the Kentucky Supreme Court in March.

Harrelson was explicit in drawing distinctions between the two at the time, but has also spoken out for marijuana law reform. As recently as this month, he was quoted in the Newark (New Jersey) Star-Ledger as saying, "I do smoke marijuana, but I don't go through all this trouble just because I want to make my drug of choice legal," he said. "It's about personal freedom. We should have the right in this country to do what we want, if we don't hurt anybody."

Harrelson's comments blur the distinction between hemp and marijuana activism. For this reason, his media-attracting presence has had an ambiguous impact, according to local hemp supporters.

For Ivey Henton, owner of Hemp Universe, a retail outlet in Lexington, "Harrelson is both a plus and a minus. He brought an enormous amount of attention," she told DRCNet. "His involvement is keeping the issue constantly before the public and providing the opportunity to elaborate on the benefits of hemp."

Joe Hickey, Executive Director of the Kentucky Hemp Growers' Cooperative, concurred. "Woody's case has and will make a difference," he said, adding "even if it doesn't change the law, it raises awareness levels."

"But there are some negatives," added Henton, "particularly with law enforcement. They feel that by talking hemp at one moment and legalized marijuana the next, he's throwing mud in their faces. It confuses the issue," she continued, "because people ask me about legalization. I'm no drug expert; I sell hemp products, I'm in retail. Legalizing drugs is not my issue. In fact, I think the benefits of growing hemp outweigh any benefits from legalization."

Gatewood Galbraith (http://www.gatewood.com) disagrees. The Lexington-based criminal defense attorney, long-time marijuana and hemp activist and Reform Party candidate for the US House of Representatives positively bristles at such talk. "It's total and utter insanity" to try to separate the two issues, he told DRCNet. "I worked with Jack Herer on hemp and marijuana way back in the 1970s, when these people were in diapers. We knew that by explaining the economic benefits of hemp we would unleash the dogs of commerce, and they would drag the sled a ways on down the pike, although not necessarily in our direction."

As for those who want to divide hemp from marijuana activism, "People have their differing motivations for trying to divide the movement," argued Galbraith. "Some are straight farmers who want nothing to do with pot, and some have less pure motives, including wanting to see continued high black market prices."

Galbraith brooks no argument about linking marijuana and hemp and holds "respectable" hemp activists responsible for the failure of the hemp bill. "Their inability and unwillingness to take on the whole issue is their undoing. Our own myopia and shortcomings are holding us back."

To the frustration but not the surprise of hemp advocates, law enforcement agencies were a bastion of opposition to the failed hemp bill. They, too, worked to confuse the issue, or at least appeared confused by it. The Kentucky State Police in particular raised red flags -- and red herrings -- in opposing the bill. In the Lexington Herald-Leader, for example, a police spokesman waxed rhetorical: "What would stop someone from planting two or three rows of marijuana in the middle of a field of hemp?"

The answer is basic botany and economics. Hemp and marijuana, both members of the cannabis family, aggressively cross-pollinate with undesirable results for both. Interbreeding marijuana valued for high THC content with low-THC hemp dramatically lowers THC content and thus economic value of smoked marijuana. Likewise, lanky hemp plants grown for the fiber in their stems would lose those desired characteristics if interbred with bushy pot plants.

Even Fenton, "no drug expert," grasps the implications of hemp for marijuana cultivation. In Canada, where the government allows hemp production, "the growers hate industrial hemp. It drives them off the soil and into greenhouses or basements," she explained. "Then they can actually be detected more easily, by using infrared scanners to detect heat from their lights."

Galbraith adds that, "Cannabis is to hemp as Dennis Rodman is to Danny Devito. They're both adult males, but if you can't distinguish between the two you don't belong in law enforcement."

Hickey is bitterly amused by the hemp is marijuana argument. "It's laughable, unbelievable," he moans. "What's really laughable," he takes pains to point out with some idiosyncratic language, "is that the only people who make this argument are on the far right (i.e., law enforcement) and the far left (i.e., pot-smoking hemp hippies). The growers know hemp is not marijuana."

Galbraith, however, begs to differ. "This kind of talk divides the movement and paints the hempsters into a corner. It hurts me because it hurts the movement."

The hemp bill had powerful supporters in the legislature, including House Majority Whip Joe Barrows (D-Versailles) and House Agriculture and Small Business Committee Chair Roger Thomas (D-Smith's Grove) and enjoyed the enthusiastic endorsement of former Republican Governor Louie Nunn, an attorney who went so far as to volunteer his services to Harrelson's defense. Even so, it was first watered down in the House and then bottled up in the state Senate, where it died in committee. The Kentucky legislature does not meet again until 2002.

But because of the impending Harrelson case, the hemp issue will remain in the public eye at least through trial. And Kentucky's booming marijuana industry is not going away either, despite the wishes of some hemp advocates and the combined efforts of state and federal drug warriors.

Kentucky marijuana growers have no industry council or spokespeople to articulate their interests, for obvious reasons. But they are still a force to be reckoned with in the state's economy and thus, indirectly at least, in its politics and culture. In fact, according to the DEA's own figures, pot is the state's largest cash crop. Its estimated $3.9 billion cash value exceeds that of tobacco by a ratio of nearly four to one.

The region's growing reputation for high-grade marijuana led to its HIDTA designation in 1996, which the drug czar's office proudly reports brought $6 million in federal funds into the region's drug war. But despite the infusion of drug-fighting dollars from HIDTA and despite the Governor's Marijuana Task Force, which started this year's operations last month, even the feds have come to realize that they are confronting a popular activity in an overwhelmingly poor and isolated area.

The drug czar's office admits that, "Marijuana's cultural acceptance allows trafficking and consumption to flourish, to the point that marijuana has become a substantial component of the local economy... Marijuana trafficking organizations are often kin-based and family oriented which produces an extended family partnership that stretches to and from the three states of the Appalachia HIDTA and beyond" (http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/enforce/hidta/appl-fs.html).

Galbraith, for one, plans to again use his congressional race to hammer against the war on cannabis in all its forms. And he hopes to capitalize on anti-government currents beyond those provoked by the drug war. "I ran for governor on the Reform ticket in 1999 and got 15% of the vote and beat the Republican in 32 counties. Marijuana reform was a big part of it, but so was gun ownership. Hell, I'm a conservative," he blusters, "Newt Gingrich wasn't a conservative, he was a freakin' alien. I tell the farmers about the potential in hemp. I tell these gun people, look, the same people trying to disarm you are the same ones trying to jail you over a green plant. And I tell the potheads, 'let's get these guy with guns smoking some good herb.' By the time I finish explaining the connections, light bulbs are coming on all over the place."

-- END --
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