Politics & Government

As Mitch McConnell pitches hemp, Kentucky remembers a quirky pioneer

Gatewood Galbraith, candidate for governor on Main Street, Lexington, Ky, April 17, 2007. Photo by  Pablo Alcala | Staff
Gatewood Galbraith, candidate for governor on Main Street, Lexington, Ky, April 17, 2007. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff Herald-Leader

Hey Mitch McConnell, what about Gatewood Galbraith?

As he encouraged lawmakers to embrace his push to legalize hemp, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell cited fellow Kentucky Republican Rep. James Comer as the “first Kentuckian to take a major lead role in what has now developed into a national consensus.”

Not so fast.

McConnell’s kudos sparked a backlash in the Twitterverse and a cry of foul from fans of the late Gatewood Galbraith, a colorful Kentuckian and perennial political candidate perhaps best known for his decades-long push to legalize hemp — and marijuana.

Indeed, one of Galbraith’s multiple unsuccessful runs for office was a 1983 bid for state Agriculture Commissioner on a platform of legalizing industrial hemp and medical marijuana.

“He was the godfather on the issue, he was there for hemp long before it was cool,” said Jonathan Miller of Lexington, a lobbyist and lawyer whose clients include hemp interests and who credits Galbraith’s interest in the subject with his own career path.

After Galbraith’s 2012 death, Miller — who briefly campaigned against him in the 2007 Democratic gubernatorial primary — revisited Galbraith’s “pet cause” and came to believe it could made economic sense for the state’s farmers reeling from the collapse in tobacco markets.

Now Miller, a former Kentucky state treasurer and former chairman of the state Democratic party, is working with McConnell’s office and others to make it easier — and completely legal — for U.S. farmers to grow and market hemp products, including trendy cannabidiol or CBD oil.

Galbraith was not a McConnell fan, at one point calling McConnell and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich “aliens, not conservatives. They never met a bloated police state they didn’t like.”

But McConnell hailed Galbraith after his passing as a “truly memorable character who loved our state and its people.” And Miller said McConnell is giving his all on the hemp effort — even as he repeatedly seeks to distance hemp from what he calls its “illicit cousin,” marijuana.

“He’s done an extraordinary job and for me to say it, as a Democrat, that means something,” Miller said of McConnell.

Galbraith was said to have worn suits made of hemp fiber on the campaign trail. After his death, Modern Farmer magazine credited him as the person who brought hemp to modern-day Kentucky. it wrote that it was Galbraith who traveled the state, touting “the economic benefits of industrial hemp as a cash crop, citing Kentucky’s long and successful history as a hemp-producing state prior to (the crop’s) prohibition in 1937.”

The magazine quoted Galbraith telling a documentary team in the 1990s that a century ago farmers grew everything that society needed.

“Does the government have the right [today] to tell man or woman that they cannot plant a seed in God’s green earth and consume the green natural plant that comes up out of it?” he asked. “That seems such an inalienable right.”

In addition to the bid for agriculture commissioner, Galbraith made five unsuccessful runs for governor, as well as failed bids for Congress and attorney general.

He was more widely known as a leading champion for hemp and marijuana legalization: He appeared in the 2003 documentary, The Hempsters Plant the Seed, along with Woody Harrelson and Ralph Nader and was endorsed for governor by troubadour Willie Nelson, after the two crossed Kentucky in a car that ran on hemp fuel. Nelson eulogized Galbraith on Facebook as a “good friend, and a tireless advocate for the repeal of the ridiculous ban on hemp & marijuana.“

Still, Miller noted that Comer was able to do what Galbraith never did: get a law passed to legalize hemp. Comer was elected Agriculture Commissioner in 2011 after campaigning on legalizing the crop and won by double digits. Once in office, he championed legislation to legalize some industrial hemp in the state.

Galbraith’s approach had a fatal flaw, said Comer, who said he knew and liked Galbraith. He backed legalizing marijuana — as often evidenced by a marijuana leaf on his campaign signs — “at a time when there was zero chance it would happen in Kentucky.”

Comer separated the two crops and emphasized the benefit to farmers.

What would Galbraith think about McConnell, one of the most influential lawmakers in the country, embracing his pet cause?

“He’d probably be complaining because marijuana isn’t legal,” Comer said of Galbraith. “But he’d probably be a little happy there’d been a small step with hemp.”

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark