Hemp and the Legacy of The Last Free Man in America

We tend to mythologize the dead; and perhaps that’s fair with politicians who’ve passed, since we use them for rhetorical target practice when they are stumping the earth.

But regardless of the intended spirit, today is a very special day for the memory of my friendly acquaintance and sometimes political rival, Gatewood Galbraith.

On the surface, the two of us could not have looked any more different — my buttoned-down, over-dressed-to-try-to-look-my-age appearance was a stark contrast to his rugged and ragged hippie/cowboy mien.  And the communitarian ethos of my attempt at being an auteur, The Compassionate Community, was a diametric challenge to the in-your-face libertarianism of his autobiographical The Last Free Man in America.

But as we campaigned against each other in the 2007 Kentucky gubernatorial primary, Gatewood and I learned we shared a very deep bond: a mutual frustration with politics-as-usual, especially with the hyper-partisan, broken-down political system within which both of us had given much of our lives.

So when he died suddenly last year, I decided to honor his memory by taking another look at his pet cause — the issue that drove him the most passionately — the campaign for which he endured decades of public ridicule — the stance that probably ensured that he would never hold public office:  The legalization of marijuana, and of its distant cousin, industrial hemp.

It didn’t take me long to realize that Gatewood was right: Legalizing pot not only made strong economic sense for our poor state, I believed that it was a moral imperative.  I shared my views in my hometown paper and The Huffington Post; and upon publication, learned that most of my friends had agreed with Gatewood, and just had been too embarrassed to admit it.

While a few states have marched quickly down the legalization path in recent years, I realize that my conservative old Kentucky home will probably lag the national trend by several years, if not the full twenty as per Mark Twain’s famous description of  the Bluegrass State.

But I had hope for hemp.  It was a matter of clear and convincing logic that the non-narcotic crop that was grown by Henry Clay — Kentucky’s second most famous 19th Century native — could ultimately boost a farm economy struggling due to the incredibly shrinking global demand for tobacco.  So I used my digital platform to advocate for hemp legalization.

I soon learned of a whole new group of unlikely allies.  Hemp was not simply the pet cause of many of my tree-hugging, peace-seeking friends on the left, I learned that it was also a special focus of many libertarian, liberty-loving Tea Party activists on the right.

Kentucky’s Agriculture Commissioner Jamie Comer grabbed hold of this motley coalition, and asked me to join him on his newly-invigorated Industrial Hemp Commission.  Together, a group that would likely find strong disagreement on any number of hot-button issues, drafted a bill that would establish an administrative and law enforcement structure for hemp growers should the crop be legalized at the federal level.  Critically, it would empower Kentucky to jump to the front of the line and establish itself as the national leader on the crop once expected federal approval was granted.

I have to admit, I didn’t expect Senate Bill 50 to pass early on.  Another unlikely coalition, composed of law enforcement officials and members of both the Democratic and Republican establishments, joined their voices in strong opposition.  When Comer and I debated law enforcement on statewide television, I knew in my mind that our positions were persuasive, but my heart warned me that the political opposition was too strong to surmount this quickly.

I had recognized that Comer was a comer — and as a conservative Republican bucking law enforcement, I realized that he had the courage and chutzpah that define my personal definition of leadership. But I had underestimated Comer’s political shepherding skills. 

Within weeks, half of Kentucky’s federal delegation had endorsed the bill:  Sen. Rand Paul was an early and strong supporter; but surprisingly, liberal Democrat Congressman John Yarmuth soon was joined by his usual nemesis, GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell, in common cause.  Then in a few short months, Comer united most Frankfort Republicans — many of whom had been previous opposed or on the fence — to support Senate Bill 50, and it flew through the GOP-held Senate.  A few weeks later, a coalition of hemp-supporting Democrats, including Sen. Robin Webb and Rep. Tom McKee, helped squash objections to push the bill, almost unanimously, through a House committee.

As the General Assembly slogged towards the conclusion of its business, however, Senate Bill 50 appeared to be gasping through its last throes; indeed, the bill was pronounced dead on about a half dozen occasions.  Ultimately, it was another leader with real backbone, Democratic House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, who offered persistent resuscitation. And at a late night meeting between Adkins, Comer and Senate bill sponsor Paul Hornback — with just about 60 minutes before the General Assembly would be closed for the year for business — a compromise was hammered out.  It was one of those bi-partisan, problem-solving moments that we dream about in our No Labels grassroots movement, an all-too-rare moment when good policy trumps hyper-partisanship.  The kind of moment at which Gatewood Galbraith would have simply shaken his head and smiled his famous crooked grin.

In the coming months, I look forward to joining Comer and our congressional delegation as we meet with key policymakers in Washington to try to secure either a waiver for Kentucky to grow hemp, if not full federal legalization for the crop.

But as I do, I will be mindful of the critical role that the late, great Gatewood Galbraith played in plowing the ground for this moment.  Too many of us laughed at him when he made the case for hemp decades ago.  Today, I imagine him laughing down at the rest of us, as his vision is on the verge of finally being realized.


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