MT. VERNON, KY. (MainStreet) Mary Jane Jones, 62, and her son Jacob Shepherd, 24, have become cannabis evangelists since the herb led their family to tragedy 20 years ago. Gary Shepherd, Jones's boyfriend and Jacob's father, was shot dead by the Kentucky State Police after a seven-hour stand-off over marijuana plants he was growing in the backyard.
Earlier this month, mother and son attended a pro-hemp event put on by Growing Warriors, an agricultural organization for veterans a cause that hits close to home.
Gary Shepherd had been a Vietnam war veteran with a Purple Heart, who felt it was his right to indulge in recreational marijuana, especially given that her first got high as an 18-year-old soldier in Vietnam.
"It helped him to be able to stay there in that war," Jones said. "He knew then that 'reefer madness' has all been a lie."
Shepherd was killed with his hands in the air. His autopsy showed bullet holes under each armpit. Jones filed a wrongful death lawsuit that she ultimately lost in court.
"It felt like we was in a war zone that day," Jones said. "Well, Jacob was not able to talk after he saw his daddy killed. And he has to be in speech for 13 years of his life to be able to even speak."
Given that Jones and Shepherd have used this low point as an impetus to fight for cannabis legalization in Kentucky and beyond, they were especially passionate at the hemp event.
"Well, now 20 years later, we're in Mt. Vernon, Kentucky fixin' to put some hemp seed in the ground, the same seed that my man was killed over," Jones said.
Jones and Shepherd are seeing seeing rising momentum for their cause, with recreational legalization for marijuana in Colorado and Washington, as well as the hemp provision of the Farm Bill, which Congress passed in February.
"The President came out and said [marijuana] is not more dangerous than alcohol, so why are we preventing ourselves from benefiting economically, nutritiously, everything because we're a little afraid of the 'M' word?" Shepherd said.
Marijuana is the cannabis cousin to industrial hemp, which has only trace amounts of the psychoactive THC, and though Kentucky at the moment is concerned with the manufacturing applications of industrial hemp as well as the medicinal ones, Shepherd is focused on the economic benefit in the county.
"I know cannabis can restore a lot that we've lost and give our communities a lot of benefit," he said.
Both Shepherd and his mother attended Oaksterdam University, a cannabis educational facility in Oakland. After graduating valedictorian in November 2011, Shepherd worked with two pro-cannabis organizations, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) in Arizona. He helped his cousin run the "Cannabus," driving through 20 states to promote the benefits of cannabis.
Currently studying agricultural economics at the University of Kentucky, Shepherd wants to be a cannabis breeder, including integrations of industrial hemp strains. Jones is also interested in continuing her marijuana activism, because after working for 16 years as a beautician after her boyfriend's death, she has been unable to work for the past five years since another catastrophe struck the family: Scarlett, one of her two children from a marriage before her relationship with Gary Shepherd, died in a car accident.
It was three days after Christmas, 2008.
"So mostly for five years, here's what I've been doing: praying and crying, because I'm a mother and my daughter's gone," Jones said. "We've had a long-haul--poor still live in the same trailer we lived in when [Gary Shepherd] got killed, and it's got five bullet holes in it."
Part of treating the pain they've endured hinges on the healing power of cannabis, from an economic and medicinal perspective.
"So there's just memories there on that farm, not good memories," Jones said. "Look at the beautiful property and say, 'Wow, hemp could be blowin in the wind.' And it's all about making legal the seed that he gave his life for."
Jones is a born again Christian, who believes in the cathartic properties of this crop.
"According to my religion, cannabis is my sacrament to Jesus Christ given to me by Jesus Christ," she said. "So you know, I think it's all good with the hemp plant. And I hope it gets set free. And I hope I get set free at the same time...Free the weed, free the seed, let it grow, there you go."
--Written by Ross Kenneth Urken for MainStreet