Friday, August 25, 2000

Actor Woody Harrelson acquitted of drug charge

Actor ends 4-year battle over growing hemp

By Steve Bailey
The Associated Press

        BEATTYVILLE, Ky. — A jury acquitted actor Woody Harrelson of misdemeanor marijuana possession charges Thursday, ending Mr. Harrelson's four-year court battle to get the state to differentiate between hemp and marijuana.

[photo] Woody Harrelson (left) jokes around with former Kentucky Gov. Louie Nunn who is helping defend Harrelson in Lee County District Court during a break in the trial.
(Associated Press photo)
| ZOOM |
        The five-woman, one-man panel deliberated about 25 minutes before returning with its verdict. Mr. Harrelson, who spent much of the day signing autographs for hundreds of fans, could have received a maximum one year in jail and $500 fine.

        “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,” a grinning Mr. Harrelson said following the verdict. “To me, they're sending out a very strong message.”

        Mr. Harrelson planted four hemp seeds in 1996, knowing he would be arrested, so he could challenge the law outlawing possession of any part of the cannabis plant.

        Through three different courts, the star of Natural Born Killers and The People vs. Larry Flynt had argued that the statute is unconstitutional because it does not distinguish between marijuana and hemp, which contains only minute amounts of the substance that makes marijuana smokers high, tetrahydrocannabinol or THC.

        The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled in March that there is no difference between hemp and its narcotic cousin, and ruled that Mr. Harrelson had to go back to Lee County District Court to be tried on the misdemeanor marijuana possession charge.

        “I honestly didn't know which way it was going to go, and I was very nervous,” Mr. Harrelson said. “When they said not guilty, I actually cried a little bit because I really wasn't expecting it.

        “I was afraid. There was a very real possibility of going to jail. Technically, I guess I violated the law according to what the Supreme Court said.”

        Former Gov. Louie Nunn, who sat on Mr. Harrelson's defense team and delivered its closing argument, said he expected the verdict.

        “Now it's time to start promoting the growth of hemp so we can have a great economic future in Kentucky,” Mr. Nunn said. “We need to educate people about the distinction between marijuana and hemp.

        “We're already losing tobacco and farmers are suffering, and this would be an alternative crop. I'm looking forward to 20 years from now, when someone here will be processing hemp and making it into clothes, shoes and other products.”

        Mr. Harrelson sat quietly during testimony, frequently jotting notes on a yellow legal pad. The actor, dressed in a blue suit, cream shirt and blue tie, glanced around the courtroom often and smiling.

        Each side called several witnesses, and jurors were shown a videotape of Mr. Harrelson planting the seeds on June 1, 1996.

        Lee County Attorney Tom Jones asked the jury during closing arguments to fine Mr. Harrelson the maximum $500 and sentence him to at least 30 days.

        “He created this whole mess himself,” Mr. Jones told the jurors. “He came here to break the law. There's no question about that.

        “He's got this coming. He misused his fame. He could have come here and talked about school violence or domestic violence and tried to bring attention to those problems. Instead, he came here and broke a drug law. What kind of example does that set to the people of Lee County?”

        Juror Sylvia Caldwell said there was no doubt in her mind that Mr. Harrelson was innocent.

        “The state just didn't have any proof,” Ms. Caldwell said. “Even on the videotape, we couldn't tell if anything was planted. We were all in agreement.”

        Mr. Harrelson, a longtime environmental activist, said he still thinks Kentucky is ground zero in the battle to legalize hemp, a crop supporters claim has a future in medicine, fiber, fuel and food.

        Kentucky is an ideal battleground for hemp advocates because hemp was once one of the state's leading crops.

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