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. Two states 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.