Joe Hickey was one of the first faces you saw in the hit documentary film “Hempsters: Plant the Seed.
Join Joe Hickey of Atalo Holdings for some never before heard stories of that day in the film all the way to the victory in the courtroom with Woody Harrelson and campaigning to get the laws changed for industrial hemp in the State of Kentucky.
“Today is Independence Day for Kentucky Farmers.”
Full Interview Text
The country was founded on civil disobedience and I think that sometimes you have to stand you for what you believe in.
Is the sheriff there? We would like to report a crime in progress.
Ok, so we just saw a little clip and it says, “I’d like to report a crime in progress.” and then you say that “Our founding fathers were… acts of civil disobedience was part of what founded this country and sometimes you gotta stand up for what you believe in.” And then we come in here. What was the date on that, wasn’t that April of 1996? When you guys did that?
Yeah, April 1996 is when we planned to have Woody plant the seeds in Kentucky to test the law because the law in Kentucky says that if you have 4 seeds it’s a misdemeanor. If you have 5 seeds it’s a felony, but they didn’t differentiate between industrial hemp and marijuana so we decided that we would test the law to see if we can get it changed, so that’s how it all started.
It was fun at the time, wasn’t it? Because I remember going to the trial, the attitude has changed a little bit with Woody looking at you like “Joe what have you gotten me into here?” Because it was a serious chance that he was going to go do some time in the…
Yeah, I think that he could have gotten probably 30 days. Which you know for somebody that has a schedule like Woody, 30 days is an awfully long time.
But the idea started when I just mentioned it to Woody that you know, I told him what the law was and why don’t we see if we can test the law and he kind of like and me and said, I was going well “Why don’t you come and plant these 4 seeds.” and he said, “Well I don’t know about getting locked up.” I said, “They’re not going to lock you up!” But of course, I didn’t know one way or the other but that is what I was thinking, they’re not going to lock somebody up for planting 4 seeds which is a misdemeanor.
And so, the back story on it that I have never told is that I went and talked with Mr. McCoy who is a friend of mine, he’s an attorney here in Lexington and told him what I was thinking and he said “Well, let me see if I can find somebody that we can get to work with. “Because what we wanted to do is have, once Woody planted the seeds, we had to find somebody that would actually lock him up and then hopefully, we were going to be or Woody was going to be found “Guilty” and then we would appeal that so we needed to find someone that would appeal it back and forth. So, we found an attorney. That would do that, so we went to his county and…
Which county was it? Wade County?
Beattyville, is where it was. I’m not sure what county that is, so we went down Woody planted the seeds and I called the cops on him, the cops showed up, but they knew that we were going to do it.
“We’d like to report a crime in progress.”
Right, so the cops show up and locks Woody up and then when it went to trial, when he plead not guilty, the judge at the Lower Court said, “You’re guilty, did you do it?” and Wood said “Yeah” (Judge) “Ok, well I find you guilty.” So that’s what we wanted and then so we appealed that to the Circuit Court and so we went through the circuit court and he was found not guilty and then the prosecutor appealed it. To the Court of Appeals and at the Court of Appeals they kicked it back down to the Lower Court again and so that’s when we had our final hearing, we asked for a jury hearing on the thing.
I got Governor Louie Nunn who was the governor back when Nixon was in. So, he was just a great statesman. The way he talked and carried himself was it kind of reminded you of Abraham Lincoln and he was Republican so he had great credentials as being a conservative and he was telling everybody “Look this is crazy, it’s hemp, it’s not marijuana.”
Anyway, he goes up and we are in court and I gave him and I gave him this hemp bar that was made out of hemp nuts. He put it in his pocket. So, he’s given, part of it was jury nullification which you’re not supposed to do but he was able to say that without the court saying, “You can’t do that.” And so, he was talking to the jury and he pulls out the candy bar, turns to the judge and says, “Your Honor with the permission of the court I am going to take a bite of this.” he just assumed permission and so…
They wouldn’t let us roll camera inside of the courtroom so this is the untold story.
And so, he rips it open, takes a bite and he’s sitting there chewing and he looks back a to all of the jurors as he is chewing and he takes a big swallow and he looks at the jury and he said “Well, I’ve got it on me and I got it in me.” As he held up the bar.
Yeah, I remember that.
And he said, “So if you are going to convict this man you are going to have to convict me.” – That was the turning point. Tom [Jones], what was Toms name, the prosecutor? But anyway, he’d given his speech before the closing arguments and so Tom…
Yeah, Tom [Jones] was trying to get him to go to Jail.
Even though he was part of it, that was his job. Tom says Woody is just here because he is trying to legalize Marijuana so he had said that earlier to when Governor Nunn had done the thing with the candy bar he was sitting there and he said and ladies and gentlemen of the jury “You hear that Mr. Harrelson is just here because his whole thing is that he is trying to legalize marijuana.”
Governor Nunn was standing right in front of Tom the prosecutors, desk and he said, and Tom Jones, that’s his name. He’s writing and has his head down, he’s writing and so the governor said, “That if I thought for one minute that’s what he was doing he slammed his hand down on the prosecutors table and the prosecutor jumped up like “WHAT?!” and he said, “I’d be sitting at this table right here if I thought that.” That was just so funny. So, the jurors go out…
Woody was scared.
Three or four of us testified. I think I was one of the last guys to testify so I didn’t hear the first part because they sequester all of the witnesses. So, when it comes time when the jurors are coming back from deliberation they walk in and I look down at my watch and it’s 4:20 in the afternoon, and I punch Woody and I said, “Look it’s 4:20.” So, the jurors are coming out and they are looking at Woody as he comes out and I was going “It’s not guilty.” Woody said, “How do you know?” “There looking be even looking at you if they had voted guilty.” Woody says, “I hope you’re right.” I said, “I know I am right.”
So, it came out and they handed the paper to the judge and the judge says “OK.” and he hands it back to the bailiff and the bailiff reads but before the Judge says, “I don’t want any outbreaks regardless of the ruling on this case.” And so, he handed it back to the bailiff. The bailiff read “Not Guilty.” And of course, the whole place just went crazy and the Judge is beating his gavel down and saying, “Order in the court, order in the court, I am going to clear the courtroom.” And it’s like we were leaving anyway!
And as we were leaving I told Woody, “Look, I don’t care what they ask you, I don’t care if they ask you if you love your momma, what size shoe you wear, what’s your favorite movie, I don’t care what they ask you.
Just repeat this: Today is Independence Day for Kentucky Farmers.” and He said “Why.” I said, “Just do it.” Just repeat, “Today is Independence Day for Kentucky Farmers.” And what he didn’t know is that I had asked the court, the judge specifically, to have the date set for the 3rd of July. The judge was going on vacation. It was a Friday and he was going on vacation. He said, “But I am leaving.” I said “Look, I am not asking you to do anything illegal or nothing I just want this date. Will you put off your vacation for a day?” and he said, “Oh man, OK…”
So, we had it on July the 3rd so when he came out and said, “Today is Independence Day for Kentucky Farmers.” That’s what everybody was grasping on, so the next day the headlines in the Lexington Herald paper said, “Today is Independence Day for Kentucky Farmers.”
I got up early the next morning and drove into town and got a few copies and I threw them on the bed and Woody woke up and he looked because I told him the headlines are going to say that and he asked how I knew. So, when I threw them down on the bed and he wakes up and reads the headlines he just looks and me and said, “I can’t believe it.” So, after that we had done other things.
Yeah, we did. Well, that was a direct action but the other stuff we did, Woody put up the money to do an essay contest for high-school kids so we did a big event with that, Woody put up the money to do a survey to see how the regular citizen of Kentucky, how they felt about letting farmers grow hemp and that survey showed that it was like 78% were strongly or somewhat in favor of allowing farmers to grow industrial hemp.
Where that came from, is early on, before I even met Woody, when we first started in 1992 we met with the legislators trying to get them to introduce the bill and write a new bill and give us something to show people and all of the legislators said, “Look we know what hemp is but the general public thinks that it is marijuana so until you guys get out educate the public on what hemp is we wouldn’t touch this with a ten-foot pole.” So, that was the impetus of all of the stuff that we did. All the farmer meetings…
Look how far it has reached now, you can talk to people all over the place and mention hemp and most people know about it now and back then you’d say, “What do you know about hemp.” and nobody had a clue what you were talking about.
After we got the poll back then we hit the paper with that. We were always doing stuff getting into the news and so after Woody’s trial in 1997. We had a bill in 1999 that we almost got passed and then in 2000… I guess it was ’99 that we got the bill introduced and in 2000 it passed but…
First round it didn’t pass.
Yeah, so the funny thing that happened is Dave Williams was the head of the Senate and we talked to Dave and he said, said “If you guys get the votes the bill can come to the floor.” So, we went around and lobbied for weeks and we finally got that final vote that put us over into the majority and so we went to David and said “Look we have the votes.” So, he wasn’t letting it go to the floor. We had the votes but just one guy. So, I went back to the governors’ house and sat down with him and I said “Look, Dave Williams said that he would let the vote go to the floor if we had the votes.”
And so, I told the governor and he said, “So he isn’t letting it go?”
“Ok, get in the car, let’s go.” So, we got in the car and he lives 20 minutes from the capital and we got there in probably less than 15, he was a mad man driving a car and because if a cop pulled him over he would just go, “Oh, it’s you, slow it down Governor!”
So, we go to David Williams office and he tells the secretary “I want to see David.” “He’s in there with someone.” “Ok.” And he turns around and starts to walk in so I was getting ready to go with him and he says, “It’s going to be better if I talk to him alone.” So, he goes in and it wasn’t two minutes later that whoever was in there came out and then about 5 minutes later he came out and said, “Let’s go!”
We walked down the hall and he said, “It’s going to be heard on the floor.” So, heard on the floor, it passed, and so that is how the bill got signed in 2000. The other thing about the bill that nobody realized is after the bill was written up, I added one sentence to the very end of the bill, because I had a feeling that this is what was going to happen. I added the last sentence which
said, “Kentucky hereby adopts any and all federal rules and regulations pertaining to industrial hemp.” and so in 2013, when the farm bill passed then Kentucky was sitting ready to go because of the FARM BILL we adopted the rules and regulations so we were right there ready to go in 2013 when the FARM BILL got passed.
That’s the short version of what happened and there was a lot of funny things that happened along the way.
Well, since this is our first podcast thanks for all of your patience with getting this going, there is more to this than we can get into this one session, so there is a lot to cover but just to wrap it up, a lot of people don’t realize that when you are dealing with those types of “Direct action” or acts of “Civil Disobedience” when it really matters there is all that other part that comes in, it’s not just that one day. You guys followed through and that is what made the difference. You have to think long and hard.
I heard people coming up to Woody wanting him to get involved with other things, “No this is my focus.” and you really can’t spread yourself too thing because there is a lot more to it than day 1. At the end of the day I think that one of the funny things that wasn’t so when he said, “It’s hard work breaking the law.” That joke was in there and they took that as him admitting to breaking the law. It came down to did you know what you were doing or not? To get past that moment where he said, “It’s hard work breaking the law.” That’s what scared him and I think that he thought that he might do some jail time.
We started in 1992 so, 25 years later, now we, I forget how many acres are growing this year – 5, 6, 10,000 here in Kentucky. Atalo Holdings you know we got about 1,500 acres this year and so, after 25 years we are an “overnight success” to everybody. Because nobody knows all of the work it took to get to where we are today.
Thanks for doing this Joe it means a lot to a lot of people. The only thing is and we will wrap it up on this is, they are still calling it “test crops” aren’t they?
Not test crops, “research” and they can keep calling it research because part the research is everything that we are doing, even the marketing is research because you can’t just research the growing of it. You have to research the processing of it and then if you grow it and process it you have to sell it. So, the marketing is part of the research so we are keeping tedious records of what we are doing and so everything is research at this point.
That would be a great place to take up because what I would like to get into next round is, the Canadians have been doing our research for us for 25 years and they are laughing all the way to the bank. Eventually, they are going to have to let this thing take off so Kentucky can grow it’s #1 crop that it has ever had back in the 1800’s it’s kind of a joke to think that any of these farmers need to do research. You know what I mean?
Well, there is some research. It’s developing harvesting equipment because if you look at all the old harvesters that they had, we have to go from the ground up again we are developing new equipment. We have some equipment that we will be patenting probably this year we will probably put in some patents for harvesting equipment so it’s different…
Let me ask you something and we will close on this.
What’s the name of your company now that is selling CBD’s and all that?
Atalo Holdings, with an S.
The website is AtaloHoldings.com
Come and look and see what we are doing. We have a section on the history up there so a lot of this stuff that we are talking about or will talk about in future podcasts you know, people can send in questions. They can look at the history down there and ask about specific things that were going on in that timeline.
The phrase that you coined and I will let you close on that.
SOMETIMES YOU JUST HAVE TO STAND UP FOR WHAT YOU BELIEVE IN.
That’s it! All right thanks for everything man, you are an all-American hero.