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Hemp campaign goes mainstream

Posted on November 23, 2000

Farmers see salvation in troubled times

The man handing out bumper stickers promoting “Industrial Hemp for Farmers, Fiber and Food” was neither wild-eyed radical nor aging flower child.

He was Jake Graves, 75, prominent Fayette County farmer, conservative, solid and respectable. So was the man accepting a bumper sticker — Jim Bruce, also 75, who made his money in the wholesale flooring business and now is trying to make a go of farming in Anderson County.

Watching nearby was someone who has known both men for decades — former Gov. Louie B. Nunn.

“You look at ’em,” Nunn said, “and you can see real fast they’re not the hippie type.”

Neither is Nunn, to say the least. He was, and is, a law-and-order Republican whose present advocacy of legal hemp production doubtless strikes some people as curious.

But the legal-hemp campaign has gone mainstream, and in one sense, Nunn’s involvement makes perfect sense. One tenet of the pro-hemp campaign is quintessentially Republican — the idea that states, not the federal government, should decide what crops their farmers can produce.

Thus, Nunn, Graves and Bruce were among those at a hemp conference last week at Midway College. The keynote speaker was Hawaii state Rep. Cynthia Thielen, a Republican who last year sponsored legislation enabling Hawaii to get a federal license to grow test crops of hemp for ethanol production.

Hawaii was motivated by a recession caused by the loss of its sugar cane industry to Asian countries with plentiful, cheap labor. “I think it’s time for the federal government — excuse the terminology — to butt out,” Thielen said.

Exhibitors at the conference had an array of products made from hemp: Rope, fiber board and equine bedding. Carpeting and cosmetics. Hemp seed flour and oil and toasted hemp seed snacks. Interior panels for cars. Stationery. Shirts, tote bags, diapers. All were made with hemp from other countries, primarily Canada.

Proponents of hemp as a source of food and fiber and as an option for battered tobacco farmers are seeking federal deregulation. They strive mightily to put distance between the plant and marijuana, its genetic, hallucinogenic cousin. It is a tough sale.

Hemp opponent No. 1 has been General Barry McCaffrey, who heads the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. McCaffrey, who once addressed both houses of the Kentucky General Assembly and got standing ovations, contends efforts to legalize hemp are a smokescreen to legalize marijuana.

Seedlings are the same and mature plants look the same, making hemp production problematic for law enforcement officers, the argument goes.

Hemp proponents say that’s absurd. Graves, the farmer whose father and grandfather grew hemp in its heyday, said the same rationale could be used to outlaw water because “moonshine looks just like water ’til you taste it.”

Nunn, said he, too, once equated hemp with marijuana. While he was governor from 1967 to 1971, the state had a vigorous drug eradication program. He said his position on hemp changed as he learned more about it.

Last summer, Nunn made a statement on the issue by successfully defending actor Woody Harrelson against marijuana cultivation charges in Lee County. Harrelson had publicly planted four hemp seeds, provoking his own arrest so he could challenge the constitutionality of Kentucky’s hemp laws.

“Woody was trying to do something for the farmers,” Nunn said. Nunn said he took the case to carry the message of the distinction between marijuana and hemp.

Nunn and other pro-hemp messengers have developed a counter to every anti-hemp argument. They say Mounties in Canada, bobbies in England and police in other countries where hemp is legal have been able to discern the difference between hemp and marijuana.

To suggestions that pot growers would use hemp to mask their illicit crop, the hemp campaign answers that cross-pollination would cause marijuana to lose the chemical that produces its high.

And when economists say there is no ready market for a Kentucky hemp industry, Nunn responds with an anecdote.

As governor, he was in an eastern Kentucky county, trying to promote construction of a modest airport. There was a skeptic in the crowd, Nunn’s story goes. “I don’t know what we need one for,” the man said, “because a plane has never lit here yet.”

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