A fight for marijuana legalization, growing for 20 years

A young Jacob Shepherd, 4, and his mother the day after they saw his father killed. Photo by Mark Cornelison

Jacob Shepherd’s only memories of his father are from his death

during a standoff over marijuana plants in their garden.

By Becca Clemons

[email protected]

BRODHEAD, Ky. — It was a Sunday morning in early August, the sun shining, glazing the fields of tobacco grown tall and nearly ready for harvest. The temperature was in the low 70s, and the sky was clear, until 4-year-old Jacob Shepherd felt his family’s trailer begin to shake.

A state police helicopter circled, chipping branches and leaves off of taller trees. Jacob’s father, Gary, stepped outside and signaled for it to land in a field next door.

His father knew why it was there.

Behind the trailer, nestled in a backyard garden among tomatoes, corn and lettuce, were more than two dozen stalks of marijuana.

“Are those your plants?” an officer asked, approaching Gary Shepherd at the chain-link fence around his home.

“Yes,” Shepherd replied defiantly, explaining that he grew it for personal medical use.

“We’re going to have to cut them down.”

“Over my dead body.”

Jacob Shepherd was just 4 years old, but he remembers the day he saw his father shot multiple times, in the head and chest, and killed on their front lawn.

“I can vividly remember the helicopters coming, I can remember them shaking the trailer,” Shepherd said, recounting Aug. 8, 1993. He remembered it being a normal morning, the family eating breakfast together before the helicopter came.

‘We can’t be afraid of it’

Jacob Shepherd, now 24, sits in Room 169 of the Capitol Annex Building in Frankfort, where the House Health and Welfare Committee meets, prepared, if necessary, to defend the use of a plant he vehemently believes is safe and medicinal.

This year could be a pivotal one for marijuana advocates nationwide, with debate over medicinal and recreational use reaching more than a dozen state legislatures, and the U.S. Department of Justice taking note of conflicts between state and federal laws.

“Marijuana is not that dangerous,” Shepherd said. “It’s not the monster that we’ve been made to believe it is.”

Shepherd has brown dreadlocks that he keeps tucked in a hat, and he sports Adidas shoes made of hemp, which were once banned because the federal government thought the word “hemp” would encourage teen marijuana use. He is a community and leadership development sophomore in UK’s College of Agriculture. He hopes to grow hemp and cannabis on his own land someday, following in his father’s footsteps.

But the fear of marijuana kept advocates, for both medicinal and recreational use, from getting a bill out of committee in Kentucky after years of trying.

Shepherd is starting a student organization, Cats for Cannabis, having enlisted about 25 potential members and started applying for official status. A strong anti-prohibition group on a campus of nearly 30,000 students could make a big difference, he said.

At the least, he said, it’s a step toward legalizing a drug with a negative stigma — a stigma that has ravaged individuals and families across the country.

“We can’t be afraid of it and let our fears justify me having to see my dad die,” he said.

‘He loved Jesus, he loved people’

The trailer sits amid a swath of farmland in rural Rockcastle County, not far off Interstate 75 in Central Kentucky, encased by tobacco fields, patches of trees and rolling hills.

About 300 acres of that land was once owned by Jacob Shepherd’s family. His great-grandfather used to grow hemp there. His father first grew marijuana there after he returned from serving in the Vietnam War.

“That’s where he discovered that marijuana is a medicine,” said Mary Jane Jones, the mother of Jacob and live-in girlfriend of Gary for six years.

Gary Shepherd, who was 45 at the time of his death, returned from the war with a Purple Heart, his family said. Among other injuries, a land mine damaged his left arm, and a steel plate was implanted near his elbow. He was unable to lift it above his head.

“He loved Jesus, he loved people, and he felt like marijuana was his right, not only because he went to Vietnam,” Jones said. “I was able to smoke a cigarette and he wasn’t even able to smoke a joint, and that’s a medicine.”

‘We want to talk to you’

The only memories Jacob Shepherd has of his father are from that Sunday more than 20 years ago.

A review of hundreds of police documents revealed further details of Gary Shepherd’s seven-hour standoff with law enforcement, including Kentucky State Police and a special response team that was called in for backup.

At about 10 p.m. the Friday before, the Rockcastle County deputy sheriff received an anonymous phone call at his home. The caller told him that Gary Shepherd had “a heck of a pot patch behind his house and in the garden,” according to the documents. Adding to nearly 30 plants in the garden, police found 15 growing against the back of the trailer, five next to the two-car garage, and a few errant plants in other parts of the yard, the documents show.

Officers with the Governor’s Marijuana Task Force were set to scour the area by helicopter that weekend, so the deputy passed along the information.

Two days later, the helicopter landed near Shepherd’s property.

“I don’t know why he said ‘Over my dead body,’” Jones said, “but he did.”

Shepherd sat in a chair in front of the house, his Ruger Mini-14 .223-caliber rifle propped up between his legs. Throughout the day, he ignored the police presence around his property and went about normal activities. He soon left the rifle on the porch and worked on his truck in the driveway for a bit. He supervised young Jacob in the sandbox, and then the father and son played catch. He was peaceful, his family members and witnesses said.

As the clock neared 6 p.m., the police made a move to negotiate.

Shepherd did not have a phone, so they used a police cruiser’s PA system: “Gary Shepherd, we are the Kentucky State Police and we want to talk to you.”

Shepherd invited officers to the fence. But before meeting them there, he retrieved his gun.

“If they were going to be armed, he was going to be armed, too,” Jacob Shepherd said.

“If you’re in the Army, they tell you your gun’s your best friend, love it, sleep with it,” Jones added.

The next details have been points of contention between Shepherd’s family and law enforcement for years.

The police told Shepherd to put his arms in the air. His right hand held his gun; the left arm was the one injured in Vietnam.

Jones, standing on the driveway just feet away, lifted one of her arms into the air and picked up her son in the other. Jacob put his hands up.

Shepherd was told repeatedly to drop his weapon. One trooper reported that Shepherd responded “go ahead and shoot me” several times, refusing the officers’ requests.

Worried that a hostage situation might develop — the deadly siege in Waco, Texas, occurred just four months earlier — officers told Shepherd to think about his young son.

Police say he aimed his rifle at them in a threatening manner. His family, along with witnesses who watched the shooting through binoculars, contend that he held it pointed into the air, and not at police.

Regardless, he was hit with a barrage of gunfire from two officers. His autopsy revealed wounds to his head, face, chest and left shoulder. He had not returned fire.

“A Vietnam veteran was shot with his hands in the air,” Jones said, “over some plants growing in the garden.”

A legislative milestone

Twenty states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medicinal use, and nearly that number have decriminalized possession of small amounts of pot. Voters in Colorado and Washington state approved marijuana for recreational use in 2012.

Sen. Perry Clark (D-Louisville), has introduced a medical marijuana bill three years in a row, but it has yet to gain traction in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

A companion House bill, introduced last month, has a better chance. Sponsored by Rep. Mary Lou Marzian (D-Louisville), the Cannabis Compassion Act became the first of its kind Thursday to make it out of the committee stage in the Kentucky Legislature with a 9-5 vote. (Also last week, a bill to allow for research involving cannabinoid oil that is derived from marijuana was passed through a Senate committee.)

But marijuana is still a tough sell in a state that, despite its Democratic traditions and history of growing hemp, often aligns politically and socially with the South.

“I don’t want to give anybody false hope; I don’t believe this bill is going anywhere in this session,” said Rep. Susan Westrom (D-Lexington), who originally passed when the bill was being voted on, but then changed her vote in favor of it. “But I do believe the conversation needs to be held.”

Rep. Robert Benvenuti (R-Lexington), a vocal opponent of the bill, said that marijuana was not approved by the Food and Drug Administration and that sufficient research had not been done on its effects.

“This is not a research bill,” he said at Thursday’s hearing. “This is a bill that says that this Legislature will decide what’s a medicine and what’s not. I don’t believe we have the authority to do that, and I think any belief that we do have the authority is arrogant, irresponsible and reckless.”

Legalizing medical cannabis, he said, would be a pathway to recreational use.

Kentucky does not need more recreational drugs, he said. “We cannot continue to put our young people, and our adults for that matter, at risk for overdose, traffic fatalities. We must do the research first.”

But Clark, the Senate bill’s sponsor, and others say that medical marijuana has helped change the lives of many patients, including young children.

“It’s absolutely undeniable that cannabis is medicine,” Clark said in a telephone interview. “The studies are in, the research has been done.”

Several lawmakers from both houses “have recognized that cannabis is medicine,” he added.

He and Shepherd both cited polls indicating that medical marijuana has 70 to 80 percent approval among Kentucky voters.

That number was 78 percent among more than 1,600 Kentucky adults surveyed in a Kentucky Health Issues Poll released last year.

A recent poll conducted for the Lexington Herald-Leader, WKYT-TV and two Louisville news organizations put approval of medical marijuana legalization at 52 percent. Opposed were 37 percent of the 1,082 registered voters polled; 12 percent were unsure.

Among those ages 18-34, approval reached 60 percent.

“I think the voters are ahead of the politicians on this,” Clark said.

A reason to rally

Shepherd and his mother still live in the trailer in Rockcastle County, and Shepherd makes the hourlong commute to UK. Bullet holes from the shooting still pepper the side of the trailer. One made it through the side of the home and into the kitchen counter.

Inside, the neatly kept living room hosts a subtle shrine to pot activism. The homages to cannabis culture include a nondescript bookshelf with literature on marijuana, hemp sacks with pro-marijuana slogans decorating the walls, and other pot-related knickknacks tucked into nooks and crannies.

Jones and Shepherd have amassed a collection of marijuana novelty T-shirts, some of them made from hemp.

Much of the decor was acquired during an eight-month tour on the CannaBus, where Shepherd and other advocates traveled to about 20 states educating the public about legalization.

The son and mother weren’t always outspoken activists, although there were times after Gary Shepherd’s death that Jones spoke at rallies, and even took a trip to Washington to meet with legislators.

Others took up the cause on the family’s behalf.

“We believe that Gary’s death illustrates the increasing militarization of the war against marijuana,” said Gatewood Galbraith, a Lexington lawyer and five-time candidate for governor who championed marijuana legalization, at a memorial a month after the shooting. Galbraith died in 2012.

“It’s going to result in more of these tragedies. We seek to assure Gary Shepherd was the last victim of this misdirected policy.”

Years after the shooting and ensuing lawsuits, Jones’ outreach remained stagnant. But in the past few years Shepherd took up activism himself, a personal fight to assure that “no kid has to go through the shit I did.”

‘This is a war zone’

Amid the fired shots, a piece of shrapnel ricocheted off the trailer and grazed the left side of Jones’ head.

“They shot me while I was holding my son,” she said.

Police told her to put Jacob on the ground, and they put her in handcuffs while Jacob grasped onto her leg.

He was caked in his mother’s blood.

“I was 4 at that time and I was really just trying to understand it,” Shepherd said. “Like, this is a war zone.”

So much blood covered his small body that he thought he was shot.

“I remember looking at my arms, looking for the wound,” he said.

Pieces left behind

In 2010, looking under the trailer one day, Jacob Shepherd made a surprising discovery.

He found about 1,000 cannabis seeds, left over from his father. In time, after many failed attempts, he got one to grow.

“You just knew that my father was a breeder,” he said, boasting of the quality of the seeds and the plants, even after all those years.

But in summer of 2012, as Shepherd was trimming the wooded area around his six plants to give them more sunlight, he heard a familiar sound.

In the sky above his property was a helicopter.

It lingered for a few minutes. Shepherd knew he could not take any chances. He immediately went out back and killed his plants.

“I knew the condition that would put my mom through,” he said.

The helicopter never returned, and no police came, but the scare served as a wake-up call.

“I felt like I accomplished that part of my life, and I could not be a grower and I could focus on changing the laws,” Shepherd said, “and I haven’t grown since.”

‘How stupid it is’

During the House committee meeting Thursday, Shepherd sat stoically, patiently, observing the testimony and discussion. He was peaceful, much like his father was in the hours leading up to the shooting. He slipped out after the vote, heading to his car in the Capitol garage to call his mother.

While he is glad the bill is advancing, the moment was bittersweet.

Most of the representatives now realize that medical cannabis patients should not be considered criminals, he said, but he wished it had not taken 20 years for that view to become popular.

“I just sort of felt like my father died for no reason,” Shepherd said.

He knows his work is not over. Supporters at the hearing drafted a letter template (on green paper) to deliver to House Speaker Greg Stumbo’s office. By Thursday evening, Shepherd had taken to Facebook to urge others to join the cause and call their representatives.

“Even though his death has helped to get us here, clearly today I don’t think any of those committee members would support a veteran losing his life over his medicine, and it’s really sad for me to have to think about today,” he said.

“I just realize now more than I really have before how stupid it is that my father did have to die over this plant.”

Related: Opponents say more research should be done on marijuana’s effects