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Robert Treadway: ‘Last Free Man in America’
Gatewood Galbraith finally goes mainstream

It was last April 20, 4/20 as the kids would say, and there I was in downtown Lexington at a pro-marijuana legalization rally. It was a little surreal, even before the smoke began to waft. A business owner – well, OK, she owns a head shop – spoke, laying out the standard Tea Party line, punctuated liberally with the words “liberty” and “freedom.” A Republican congressional candidate who had gone to high school with my son spoke next, along the same lines.

Gatewood Galbraith died a year ago today. (Photo by Jill Seelmeyer)

Right-wing politicos spoke as well. The name Gatewood Galbraith was uttered numerous times by the speakers and fans both, but Gatewood was there only in spirit. The Last Free Man in America, as he titled his 2006 autobiography, had passed away at the painfully young age of 64 the previous Jan. 4, a year ago today, like Moses, able to climb the top of the mountain and look over, but never allowed to see a world in which marijuana was fully decriminalized in any U.S. jurisdiction.

At the stroke of 4:20, one of Gatewood’s campaign veterans pulled a joint from his backback, lit it, took a puff and handed it to me. We were on Main Street in downtown Lexington, virtually in the door of the Fayette County Courthouse. I looked around. We were having a pro-marijuana rally at the Courthouse, and not one police officer had bothered to come and watch, which tells you as much as anything about society’s shifting attitude about the noble herb. I shrugged and took a puff myself. The joint made its way around awhile, and others joined it. My buddy, looking slightly red in the eyes, and looking at the smoke signals, asked a deep philosophical question: “Did you ever think we’d be smoking pot in downtown Lexington at a rally put on by THE REPUBLICANS???”

As I pondered that, my cell phone rang. It was my son. “Dad, are you downtown smoking pot in public???”

Lexington is a town where you can’t get away with anything. “Yes,” I said. “With the Republicans.”

Dead silence. “It’s a different world,” he said. One of his friends had texted him that I was there and being “awesome.”

“Too bad Gatewood’s not there, too,” he said. Yes, I thought to myself, it was.

The year 2012, the first post-Gatewood year, was a big year indeed for pot. As Gatewood was passing away in Lexington, initiatives to legalize marijuana entirely were gaining momentum in Colorado, Oregon and Washington, and of the three, only Oregon (which has had medical marijuana since 1998) voted it down. During Gatewood’s entire life, marijuana had never been legal in the United States for other than medical purposes, and within a year of his death, it is entirely legal in two states, and legal for medical use in another 17.

Gatewood developed his conservative persona toward the end of the ’90s, and an interview on my old radio show on Georgetown Public Radio may have been the first time he applied the conservative tag to himself in public. I remember thinking to myself during the interview, how can you ever sell pot to a conservative audience?

As usual, I had underestimated Gatewood. He had come to the conclusion years ago that marijuana legalization was ultimately a conservative issue, and he took the plunge. Trying to decide in what political category to put Gatewood was somewhat of an exercise in futility, because his ideas overlapped all traditional ideological positions. And, based on the 4/20 rally I attended, he was right.

In a Facebook post commemorating the anniversary of his death, Gatewood’s daughter Molly said that every person left a conversation with Gatewood believing that he believed exactly as they did, and that this was one of the secrets to his appeal. And, she’s right. I’ve seen militia types with their thousand-yard stares and trunks full of guns stand in awe beside ponytailed hippies in tie-dyed shirts. Each saw Gatewood as his soul brother.

Some of Gatewood’s detractors have suggested that, beyond the legalization of marijuana, he had no true political philosophy. I used to think that myself, but in retrospect have come to another conclusion: Gatewood was the last true populist in Kentucky. He was a man of the people who fought for those he considered the little guys in society, and this informed his political views as well, and his concern for the downtrodden didn’t always fit any political label.

To me, Gatewood’s proudest moment in his last campaign for governor in 2011 was his pledge to provide a substantial voucher to each graduating Kentucky high school student, to be used for any type of education, including vocational and other trade schools.

“C-students need an education and job skills, too,” he told me again and again. “You can’t achieve success helping only the geniuses.” And he was right. His proposal never grew wings in the campaign, and I doubt that any mainstream politician, with one eye on the budget and the other on his next re-election campaign, would revive it.

At Gatewood’s memorial service, it was difficult to listen to elected officials who wouldn’t have implemented any of Gatewood’s policies eulogize him as a visionary. James Comer, our Republican Commissioner of Agriculture (an office for which Gatewood once unsuccessfully ran), is keeping the roads hot across the state trying to promote industrial hemp, marijuana’s non-psychotropic cousin, and at least one former statewide elected official has endorsed the legalization of pot, though at the same time pointing out that he had never used it himself.

Perry Clark, a Kentucky state senator from Louisville, stunned the state in July when, during a presentation in favor of the Gatewood Galbraith Medical Marijuana Act (which featured a video of Gatewood), he admitted that he had both been recommended for a medical marijuana prescription himself, and that he had actually inhaled.

You see, we have come to the curious point in our society where it is perfectly legitimate for a politician to support the legalization of marijuana, particularly for medical purposes, but not to admit that he has ever inhaled himself. Some thought this admission might beat Clark in the 2012 elections (it didn’t), or harm his credibility in Frankfort (so far, also untrue).

Ultimately the question of whether marijuana will be made legal will rest more on money than morality. Colorado in particular sees a tourist boom in the green herb in its future, and if it is successful in developing cannabis tourism, others will follow. All without Gatewood’s quips.

Gatewood’s death is still not fully real to me; I have voicemail messages from him I refuse to delete from my phone, and I still have his emails. He came out and had dinner with my housemates and me a day or two before his death, and I remember thinking how bad he looked, and how weak he seemed. None of us knew it would be the last time we saw him.

A year later, I imagine Gatewood looking down on us, and between puffs, suggesting that we fight just a little bit harder. My son is right: It’s a new world.

You might also be interested in reading 2012 Review: Hemp and death of advocate Gatewood Galbraith drew national audience.

Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a lifelong interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Prof. Miller’s role as legal editor on ABC TV’s Good Morning, America. He writes, posts, and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.

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