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Revisiting the moment Woody Harrelson was arrested for planting hemp seeds

On the list of famous potheads, Woody Harrelson currently resides somewhere in the nebulous John Mayer/Paul McCartney territory: not exactly legendary connoisseurs like Snoop Dogg or Willie Nelson, but well known enough for his fondness of grass that it can be fairly readily associate with him. Sure, he claims to have quit, but every time he mentions a 5G tower and coronavirus in the same sentence, I don’t fully believe that he’s sober.

But when Harrelson was arrested on June 1st, 1996, it wasn’t for rolling up. Instead, it was a symbolic protest meant to bring attention to the distinctions of marijuana and organic hemp, a distinction that the state of Kentucky didn’t see or share with the True Detective actor.

Just a quick refresher for anyone not caught up on their hallucinogenic horticulture: marijuana and hemp derive from the same plant species, cannabis sativa, but hemp ha lower levels of THC, the chemical that causes the high feeling you get when smoking weed. Hemp, with its higher concentration of CBD, isn’t designed to get you high: it’s a durable, readily available, easily growable, and flexible natural resource that can often be used to make clothing, biodegradable plastic, paper, and a number of commercial products.

So, when Harrelson showed up to Lee County to plant hemp seeds, it was to challenge the Kentucky law that did not distinguish between organic hemp cultivation and marijuana possession. Hemp was once a highly-produced crop in Kentucky, but after the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed, the growing of hemp was outlawed and remained so in the 60 years before Harrelson’s cultivation crusade. Today, you need to register for a Hemp License in order to cultivate, but back in 1996, it was still illegal.

While an important political statement and figurative action, the planting was also a carefully planned publicity stunt: Harrelson’s personal attorney, the same one who would bail the actor out of jail and have him acquitted in time to make it home for dinner that same day, was former Kentucky Governor Louie Nunn, who in his later years became an advocate for the cultivation of industrial hemp.

With a camera crew from CNN in tow, Harrelson made sure to tip off the local authorities to his actions. They all gathered at a neutral location, where Harrelson planted the seeds and was formally arrested. Harrelson wasn’t busted with a backroom full of marijuana plants: he courted public attention through a deliberately representative action.

Harrelson was later acquitted of the charges brought against him, famously after the jury deliberated for less than half an hour. After his acquittal, the actor signed autographs at the courthouse and made a statement on what he believes his speedy acquittal represented.

“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.”

Harrelson would continue his advocacy for industrial hemp, and as America inches ever close to full decriminalisation/legalisation of cannabis-related products, the actor is sure to be viewed as a hero to both progressive business insiders and High Times readers alike.

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