OTTUMWA – Brian Littlejohn didn't set out to become part of the debate over hemp. Really.
It's a charged issue, with people thinking of different things depending on the words used. Marijuana, to most, means drug. Cannabis has a similar reaction, though the word is perhaps a bit less loaded. Say hemp, and people generally think clothing, rope or other textiles. But it's the same plant all three times.
Public views are shifting, with medical use of marijuana now established in some states. A small group even voted to legalize marijuana last November.
Littlejohn wasn't paying much attention when those votes were held. He was introduced to the questions surrounding the plant when he saw an interview with Logan Edwards of Legalize Iowa. Edwards' story caught his attention, and he started doing some research of his own.
“It just fascinated me,” said Littlejohn.
The fascination led to Saturday's Southeast Iowa Hemp Education Expo at Ottumwa Park, which put both Littlejohn and Edwards into the spotlight.
Activists often break down into two basic camps. There are those who favor marijuana explicitly for the use of the drug, whether medical or recreational. Then there are those who focus on the industrial use of hemp, which used to be widely grown in the United States. Littlejohn finds himself more on the industrial side of the split.
Edwards supports use of marijuana, a position he came to gradually. He served in the Marine Corps in Iraq and developed post-traumatic stress disorder after returning. He tried self-medicating first.
“I used to drink a lot to cope with that. I got in a lot of trouble with drinking and driving,” he explained.
Edwards turned to the Veterans Administration for help, even going so far as to spend three months in an inpatient program. It didn't succeed.
Marijuana did, though. It helped control the anxiety, the fear that had marked Edwards' life.
“My life has just completely turned around.”
Edwards is frustrated with Iowa's pace on the issue. In 2010 the Iowa Board of Pharmacy formally stated marijuana has medicinal uses, but left it to the legislature to take action on how it could be used by patients. The legislature has not done so.
“They don't even want to hear the arguments,” Edwards said.
Littlejohn created Saturday's event in part to give Edwards a stage in southeast Iowa. The idea was to provide an opportunity for education without the stereotypes that can surround the issue. Social media spread the word, with people clearly warned this was to be an expo without any of the actual subject matter present. “Bring your buddies. Leave your bud at home,” was one slogan.
It didn't draw as many people as Littlejohn had hoped. The expo's Facebook page showed over 400 people saying they would attend. But Saturday afternoon there were maybe 50 in attendance. And that was if you counted the band that had just arrived to play.
Both Littlejohn and Edwards believe there is considerable support for some sort of reform to the current laws under the surface. But people don't feel safe advocating for it because of the reactions of others. There can be social repercussions, but also potential fallout at the workplace.
“There's a lot of people who support it but most have to stay in the closet,” Littlejohn said.
So the goal for now remains exposure. Supporters believe the facts are on their side, if they can just get them to people. That leads to events like the one on Saturday.
It's an uphill fight, organizers admit. And there's no guarantee of success.