Beattyville, Kentucky — A Lee County jury acquitted actor Woody Harrelson on a misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession yesterday, ending his four-year court battle to get the state to differentiate between hemp and marijuana.
The six-member jury deliberated about 25 minutes yesterday before returning with its verdict.
Harrelson, who spent much of the day signing hundreds of autographs, could have been sentenced to a year in jail and fined $500 if convicted.
“I had the opportunity to talk to some of the jurors afterward, and, regardless of what the Supreme Court says and regardless of what the legislators say, those people don’t think it’s right that someone should go to jail for growing industrial hemp,” Harrelson said. “To me, they’re sending out a very strong message.”
He planted four hemp seeds in 1996, knowing he would be arrested, so he could challenge the law outlawing possession of any part of the cannabis plant.
Through three courts, he had argued that the statute is unconstitutional because it does not distinguish between marijuana and hemp. Hemp contains only minute amounts of the narcotic substance that makes marijuana smokers high, tetra-hydro-canna-binol (THC).
The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled in March that there is no difference between hemp and its narcotic cousin, and it declared that Harrelson had to return to Lee District Court for trial.
Harrelson, 39, starred in the films “Natural Born Killers” and “The People vs. Larry Flynt” but is best known to many for his bartending role in the ’80s television series “Cheers.”
“I honestly didn’t know which way it was going to go, and I was very nervous,” he said. “When they said, “Not guilty,” I actually cried a little bit.”
“I was afraid. There was a very real possibility of going to jail. Technically, I guess I violated the law, according to what the Supreme Court said.”
Former Gov. Louie Nunn, who was on Harrelson’s defense team, said he had expected the verdict.
“Now it’s time to start promoting the growth of hemp so we can have a great economic future in Kentucky,” Nunn said. “We need to educate people about the distinction between marijuana and hemp.”
“We’re already losing tobacco and farmers are suffering, and this would be an alternative crop.”
Each side called several witnesses, and the jurors were shown a videotape of Harrelson planting the seeds June 1, 1996.
Lee County Attorney Tom Jones asked the jury during closing arguments to fine Harrelson the maximum $500 and give him at least 30 days in jail.
“He created this whole mess himself,” Jones said. “He came here to break the law. There’s no question about that.”
“He’s got this coming. He misused his fame.”
Juror Sylvia Caldwell said there was no doubt in her mind that Harrelson was innocent.
“The state just didn’t have any proof,” she said. “Even on the videotape, we couldn’t tell if anything was planted.”
Hemp was once one of the state’s leading crops. In the 1800s it was used to make rope and sails, but anti-drug laws, the availability of other fibers and the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 wiped out production in this country.
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