On June 1st, 1996, the sun rose lazily over Kentucky’s heartland. Thankfully, it wasn’t mid-summer yet in the Bluegrass State, when the land itself seems to be a source of heat, in addition to a blistering sun. I was in a car with Woody Harrelson, Kentucky hemp activist Joe Hickey and Woody’s attorney, another hemp activist named Tom Ballanco. We were speeding toward Beattyville, a tiny farming community of about 1,100 Kentuckians, where Woody had purchased a quarter-acre of land. That morning, he was orchestrating his own arrest.
Throughout our early history, the state of Kentucky was America’s primary hemp producer, harvesting crops as recently as World War II. But in 1996, hemp – an agricultural crop with deep roots in our history – was, and still is, classified as a Schedule One drug. All forms of cannabis are on this list of forbidden substances, along with heroin and LSD. Woody, who had become the most outspoken, high-profile celebrity to speak out against anti-cannabis laws, wanted to draw attention to this lunacy. That morning, he broke a small patch of ground with a hoe – wearing an all-hemp outfit, of course – and planted four non-THC industrial hemp seeds. Then, Joe Hickey called the county sheriff.
In 10 minutes, a police cruiser meandered up the road. Out stepped a kindly sheriff, obviously tipped off about the event, who asked Woody what he was up to.
‘Well, I just planted four seeds of hemp right here,” he said.
“Well, could you get them outta there please?” the sheriff asked.
Woody knelt down and dug around in the six-foot strip of Kentucky soil that he’d hoed earlier. But he was coming up empty. He rose, clapped the dirt off his hands and politely said: “Sir, I don’t want to disobey your orders and I don’t want to tell you your job, but I don’t think I’m gonna find ‘em.”
So Woody was busted and taken in – and made international news in the process. Over the next four years, he appeared in Kentucky courts several times, always with Hickey and Ballanco, and had a lot of fun in the media, exposing the shame of America’s War on Drugs and how it had outlawed a legitimate agricultural commodity.
But Woody never lost sight of the seriousness of his legal battle, even enlisting former Kentucky Governor Louie Nunn (now deceased) as part of his legal team. The charges were minor – a misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession – but Woody wanted to point out that Kentucky’s anti-cannabis laws made no distinction between industrial hemp and smokeable cannabis. Nunn’s contribution to his defense was a dramatic moment he provided by eating a hemp energy bar in the courtroom. “Now I’ve got hemp on me and in me. I guess you’re gonna have to arrest me, too!”
On August 24, 2000, a six-member jury deliberated about 25 minutes before returning with a verdict of “Not Guilty.” Woody and his legal team celebrated on the steps of the courthouse. But there was also a lot of anger on that day.
On that very morning, heavily armed DEA and FBI agents launched a raid on the hemp crop of Alex White Plume on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It was a legal crop, sanctioned by the Oglala Lakota Tribal Council. There was no coincidence. The Feds chose to make a statement, eager to demonstrate their ultimate power on a day when they were powerless to stop a Kentucky jury from acquitting Woody Harrelson for planting four hemp seeds.
Four of these hemp seeds led to a four-year legal battle.
Woody prepares his quarter-acre for planting.
The county sheriff leads Woody away for booking.
Woody meets the press after a pre-trial hearing.
Woody celebrates on the Lee County courthouse steps with Tom Ballanco, Gov. Louie Nunn, Joe Hickey and lead attorney Charles Beal
Woody signs the T-shirt of a rapturous fan after his acquittal.