Published: July 10, 2012
By Rae Hodge–
FRANKFORT, Ky –In the center of a crowded committee room at the state Capitol, Kentucky Sen.Perry Clark of Louisville stands at a wooden podium and conjures the ghost of Kentucky’s recently departed pro-hemp hero, the legendary Gatewood Galbraith.
Old footage of a fiery Galbraith speech plays overhead on the room’s projector screens as a crowd of cancer survivors and MS patients hoot and clap – some in wheelchairs or with canes, others standing upright with faces made gaunt by years of pained endurance.
On screen, Galbraith is still young and angry and speaking with a voice that does not yet recognize defeat.
“We’re going to take the government out of your bedroom, your bloodstream, your brain, your bladder, your business, your billfold, your back pockets, your bingo halls and your internet bulletin boards!”
Behind Clark, surviving Galbraith family members fill the committee chairs, along with other speakers ranging from plain-clothes patients to tie-dyed die-hards. Reporters line the walls and scribble while their cameras gawk, unblinking.
They’re here because of Senate Bill 129, the Gatewood Galbraith Memorial Act, a bill that would reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II substance, allowing it to be prescribed for medical treatment.
It is the latest in a long line of efforts to legalize Kentucky’s number one cash crop, and all the familiar points are present in Clark’s speech – the plant’s medical benefits, the illegitimacy of its criminality and the economic growth it could provide the state.
Dark stories wind through the room as Jacob Jones, son of Gary Shepherd, takes to the podium.
Jones recounts a day in 1993 when a Kentucky National Guard Black Hawk helicopter rattled the roof of his family’s trailer and dropped down from the sky, filled with Rockcastle County’s finest and the Governor’s own Marijuana Task Force agents, hunting for Jones’ disabled veteran father.
Jones, a child then, says: “I ran inside our trailer to my little toy box and grabbed a green plastic toy sword, and wielded it through the chain link fence.”
He fights to control the shaking in his voice. “My father was shot. My mother was shot. Through the head. With a bullet fragment. And I was covered in blood. So much so that I thought I was shot myself,” says Jones.
“For the most part, I still live in the same trailer. With the same bullet holes that killed my father.”
A young summa cum laude graduate from UK describes how marijuana helped her recover from the paralyzing trauma of a sexual assault.
“I slept with my eyes open for months. I would wake up screaming at the top of my lungs not knowing that I was. I couldn’t carry on a normal conversation without shaking,” she said, “Two different licensed professional counselors suggested that I try marijuana. Using marijuana therapeutically, I was able to go to school, play soccer, interact.”
Veterans testified that pot relieved PTSD symptoms, cancer survivors swore by it, those with multiple sclerosis agreed they couldn’t accomplish fundamental daily functions without it – countless academic studies espousing the wide medicinal value of the plant, echoing countless academic studies espousing the wide medicinal value of the plant, and patients from other states.
As Kentucky continues to lead the nation in cancer cases, and carry above-average PTSD rates (often attributed to our exceptionally high rates of military enlistment and sexual abuse), critics are more hard-pressed than ever to find a clinical argument against the legalization of medical marijuana in the state.
Clark punctuates his speakers by firing off points like bottle rockets: “How absurd is it that the U.S. government holds the only known patent to medical marijuana when so many people need this medicine?”
His conviction is hard to argue with. Here’s a guy who’s been boxed into a corner more than once on the senate floor – a Democratic senator in a Republican controlled chamber that seems to have finally decided to take off the gloves.
There are some in the minority who, like retired Sen. Tim Shaughnessy of Louisville, will speak to every measure possible and, even when dramatically outnumbered, exhausting themselves to satisfaction on each vote.
And then there are the steam engine legislators who build pressure slowly over time, waiting for the moment they can blow their stack at full speed. On Thursday, Clark’s amiable veneer gave way to a momentum rarely seen outside of a stump speech. If this optimistic bill is a shrewd political maneuver to secure the active liberal voting base in his district, then the sell is energetic and indignant enough to be convincing.
Then the inevitable happens. Someone in the audience outs Clark about his marijuana use. Silently, the cameras and reporters swivel their gaze to him. Cue audio. We have lift off.
Clark shrugs. “Yeah,” he says. “I’ve been recommended a medical marijuana card, and I’ve used marijuana. I’m not a chronic user or anything.”
“You know, people ask me all the time, ‘Do you smoke marijuana?’ and I usually ask them, ‘Do you?’” He laughs a bit to himself, and the audience chuckles back at him.
Molly and Abbey Galbraith look on from behind Clark. They crack slow smiles. The spirit is contagious, the conjuration a success.
Seventeen other states may already be ahead of us in their medical marijuana laws, but Kentucky has not entirely missed the boat. The 2011 legislation reducing marijuana possession (up to 8 ounces) to a Class B misdemeanor, with a maximum 45 days in jail, came with the caveat that police no longer have to arrest people for weed unless they’re also physically threatening, or driving while intoxicated.
The penal code reform may have come from the need to find inexpensive alternatives to incarceration, but the window to legalization is no less opened for it. For Clark to take advantage of that window and turn Kentucky into the 19th state legalizing marijuana, he’ll have to do more than present the evidence.
SB 129 has more pressing obstacles in front of it; the wall of Republican leadership that composes the Senate Judiciary Committee, who are likely to prevent it from being given a hearing, or vote it down if it receives one.
The cast includes Senate President Pro Tem and Committee Vice-Chair Katie Stine, R-Southgate; Majority Floor Leader Robert Stivers, R-Manchester; Majority Whip Carroll Gibson, R-Leitchfield; and Majority Caucus Chair Dan Seum, R-Fairdale.
Committee Chair Tom Jensen, R-London, has already been accused in the press of stalling.
The opposition in front of him seems impossible, and the bill seems like a suicide mission. The tightly-knit legislators represent a combined 31 counties, and all trend toward conservative policy. Clark will need them, but admits, “We do not have those votes.” And he likely won’t get them this year. Maybe not next year, either.
Then again, ghosts have been known to walk through walls. If Clark’s conjuration is good enough, Gatewood’s ghost might even walk through this one.“This is inevitable,” Clark says. “This is going to occur. When you get a groundswell of the people, the politicians will follow.”