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Harrelson trial highlights benefits of industrial hemp

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Berea, Ky.

Louie Nunn, Kentucky’s former Republican governor, grabbed a candy bar made of hemp seed. Now a venerable statesman in the commonwealth, Nunn gave the closing argument in defense of actor Woody Harrelson, accused of planting hemp seeds in Lee County. “By holding this candy bar in my hand I am in possession of marijuana according to the [Kentucky] statute,” Nunn told the jury. Tearing off the wrapper, he munched a corner of the bar and continued, “Now I got it on me, and I got it in me.”

Great theater for a misdemeanor trial that attracted adoring fans, the national press and advocates of industrial hemp. Most state laws, including Kentucky’s, make no distinction between marijuana and industrial hemp. Yet, while one gets users high, the other promises to strengthen the economic base for many rural families and help the environment for all. Hemp, a crop of myriad uses, represents a viable alternative to tobacco for family farms.

Hemp paper will preserve forests from vast clear-cut logging. Hemp clothing will spare soil the petrochemical supplements demanded by other fiber crops. For Appalachia, hemp offers a sustainable direction that promises a variety of light manufacturing for small communities.

Unfortunately, industrial hemp is illegal.

The Harrelson trial on Aug. 24 in the heart of Appalachia in Beattyville, Ky., (population 1,131) highlighted the confusion between marijuana and industrial hemp. Both are part of the genus cannabis. Legally, to possess industrial hemp is to possess marijuana. On June 1, 1996, Harrelson was arrested during a test of the law’s ambiguity. He planted four certified industrial hemp seeds in view of the Lee County sheriff and a video camera crew.

Advocates of hemp say the difference between marijuana and industrial hemp -- although they are essentially the same plant -- lies in the psychoactive ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which produces a drug high. Whereas street marijuana contains 3 to 15 percent tetrahydrocannabinol, industrial hemp, which is bred differently, has only 0.3 percent.

The scare of a marijuana epidemic pushed legislators beginning in the 1930s to gradually prohibit all forms of cannabis. Curiously, several local folks attending the trial remembered their grandparents growing hemp with government-issued seeds in the “Hemp for Victory” campaign during World War II. Counselor Nunn even reminded the jury that the Declaration of Independence was written on paper made from hemp.

Harrelson recalled that, in the early 1990s, as an avowed environmentalist, he was searching for alternatives to National Forestry Service plans to lease 6 million acres of forests for mining and clear-cut logging. Old-growth forests would be cut down to make paper. Hemp offered an alternative. The same paper products currently made from 100-year-old forests could be made from hemp grown in 120 days.

Appalachia’s vast stands of forests keep chip mills and paper plants humming. Hemp could limit the bite of the chainsaw.

Further, industrial hemp grows without the need of fungicides, herbicides or insecticides. Although it needs some nitrogen fertilizer, its deep roots can improve the soil’s structure. Hemp paper is acid-free and takes less energy and fewer toxic chemicals to produce than wood fiber paper. For Appalachia, growing and processing industrial hemp would mean less pollution.

Though still one of the states with the most farms, Kentucky has seen its farms dwindle from 267,000 in 1940 to 88,000 in 1997. Most small Kentucky farms, especially those in Appalachia, survive with some tobacco base. Family farms hold out intangible values such as a sense of place, opportunity for physical labor, connection to the land. Neighbor helps neighbor; communities look out for their own. To lose family farms is to forfeit a basic source of spirituality in the region. But amid concern for public health and a diminishing domestic market for tobacco, this keystone of the Appalachia’s small-farm economy begs for an alternative.

Tobacco gives the farmer roughly $2,000 net per acre. While field crops like corn or soybeans yield around $70 net an acre, raw hemp returns about $400 net an acre. Replacing tobacco with industrial hemp means utilizing five times more land to maintain the income equivalent of tobacco, a difficult challenge in mountainous Appalachia.

Still, hemp presents numerous possibilities for economic development beyond the crop itself. With industrial hemp grown in and around Appalachia, mountain communities could spawn small companies for manufacturing. Hemp products can include baseball caps, lingerie, jeans, lip balm, veggie burgers, paper, shoes and building supplies. It can be used in plastics, as a non-toxic alternative to fiberglass and blended with other textile fibers. Industrial hemp could comprise part of a potential alternative to the world’s dependence on petroleum, forest products and toxic chemicals.

In Kentucky, though, where illegal marijuana is arguably the largest cash crop, it is illegal to wear clothing made from hemp. State law bars the University of Kentucky from research on uses of hemp.

At the Harrelson trial the prosecution had to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant had hemp-marijuana in his possession and that he intended to break the law. Although the prosecution played a 10-second video showing Harrelson hoeing the seed bed, displaying the seeds and patting the ground after planting, it neglected one convincing step: it never retrieved the seed or tested the plant. “How do you know they weren’t pumpkin seeds?” asked Nunn. The failure to test and retrieve physical evidence, plus the commonsense reasoning of the jurors (“I couldn’t send someone to jail for planting four seeds,” one juror is reported to have said), kept this case from becoming a media circus akin to the1925 “Scopes Monkey Trial,” in which school teacher John T. Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution.

The verdict in the Harrelson trial: not guilty.

The Harrelson case did not change the law. Two years ago the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled the law constitutional with its definition of marijuana. To change the laws, both state and federal, means educating the public about how 32 countries throughout the world, including Canada, England and Germany produce industrial hemp with licenses and safeguards. It means challenging the official policy of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration: zero tolerance for THC. And, it probably means fighting the wealth and power of the petrochemical, timber and fiber lobbies. Only a David with a slingshot could do that.

Still, smiling Woody Harrelson with hoe in hand might have prepared a seedbed for new thinking, leading to sprouts of hope in Appalachia.

Fr. John Rausch, a Glenmary priest, coordinates the Office of Justice and Peace for the Lexington, Ky., diocese.

National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2000