UK Archivist Matthew Strandmark’s new biography of the colorful and controversial Kentuckian Louis Gatewood Galbraith was released Nov. 7 by the University Press of Kentucky. Gatewood: Kentucky’s Uncommon Man provides a comprehensive overview of the life and career of a political activist decades ahead of his time.
An eccentric and unforgettable character, Galbraith was a criminal defense lawyer who gained notoriety throughout the region and across the country for his outspoken advocacy of hemp and cannabis legalization. He became a fixture in Kentucky’s cultural imagination over the course of nine unsuccessful political campaigns, including five runs for Kentucky governor, during which he spread his defend-the-little-guy message and won over audiences across the state with his infamous quips and barbs (“If I was going to lie to you, I’d already be elected”).
“He was interesting, he was engaging, and he was always in the news,” said Strandmark. “He became something of a Kentucky folk hero.”
But with his unfiltered language, affinity for recreational drug use, financial difficulties, and public demonstrations (he was arrested in 1995 for blocking the Fourth of July Parade through downtown Lexington), Galbraith was often cast as a buffoon, and his perennial political campaigns – and the causes that they championed – were written off as a joke.
Strandmark said the book began as a personal project, stemming from a conviction that there was something more behind the caricature. “The more I learned, the more I believed that Gatewood’s was a story that deserved to be told,” he said.
In December 2020, Strandmark began researching in earnest, conducting his first of 35 oral history interviews. Over the next year, Strandmark would hear stories from Galbraith’s family, friends, fellow attorneys, and public figures such as Paul E. Patton, Ernie Fletcher, Andy Barr, and Jim Gray.
“Everyone has a story about Gatewood,” said Strandmark. “Often these are stories about small charitable acts or the pro bono work he was doing defending people with marijuana convictions. He had a genuine care for people. He wasn’t orthodox about how he did it, but he genuinely cared, and he practiced what he preached. This was the Gatewood I heard about from everyone I talked to, and the Gatewood I felt compelled to share.”
Along with his character, Strandmark was drawn to Galbraith’s political prescience.
“Gatewood is still very much a part of the political conversation,” said Strandmark. “Something I heard in every single interview was that Gatewood was ahead of his time. Now, Gatewood’s time has finally come.”
In March 2023, the Kentucky state legislature legalized the use of medical cannabis. The law will go into effect in January 2025.
“Today, there’s overwhelming support for medical cannabis across Kentucky,” said Strandmark. “The first time most Kentuckians heard about the idea was through Gatewood. Legalization was laughable even 10-15 years ago. Now, both parties are clamoring to take credit for it.”
“Gatewood made it possible to talk about something that used to be unthinkable. He fought for drug reform all his life. Changes occuring in Kentucky today are possible because he laid the groundwork, but he hasn’t been recognized for the things he fought and sacrificed for over his 30-year career.”
While much of the country has moved to more permissive cannabis policies, Kentucky continues to enforce stiff penalties. The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy’s Cannabis Criminalization Report documents over 300,000 marijuana-related charges across the state from 2002-2022, with lasting, harmful effects falling disproportionately on low-income and Black and Brown Kentuckians.
According to an American Civil Liberties Union report, Kentucky has the second-worst racial disparity in marijuana possession arrests in the country. Even though Black and white people use marijuana at similar rates, a Black person in Kentucky is 9.4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person.
“The communities who are hurt by these convictions are the ones who can least afford it. Punitive drug policies like these ruin people’s lives,” said Strandmark. “Gatewood was pointing this out decades ago. Had he been listened to, a lot of pain could have been avoided.”
Galbraith’s prescience can be noted on cars across Kentucky sporting “Gatewood Was Right” bumper stickers.
Beyond oral history interviews, Strandmark conducted his research using local newspapers and media, as well as the Gatewood Galbraith papers, held by the Special Collections Research Center.
The collection contains Galbraith’s correspondence, campaign and cannabis activism materials, and records of his legal work, but is unique for the variety of artifacts it contains: political pins, posters, bumper stickers, and an assortment of hemp artifacts brought to trade expos to showcase the usefulness of industrial hemp. “We even have his trademark fedora,” said Strandmark.
“That’s the beauty of archives,” he added. “They connect us to the past and keep stories alive. They give us a glimpse of those who are no longer with us, and allow us to remember people the way they deserve to be remembered.”
Strandmark applauded the encouragement and mentorship he received from colleagues across UK Libraries, including the late Terry Birdwhistell and Doug Boyd, Director of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History. “I had never written a book proposal before. I knocked on Terry’s door and he helped set me in the right direction. There is a wonderful community of scholars here who will believe in what you’re doing and support you through it.”
“I can’t say enough about the wonderful people at University Press of Kentucky, especially Ashely Runyon and Patrick O’Dowd. They consistently take a chance on working with people who haven’t done it before, and they’ve helped propel local writers onto the national stage. I am enormously grateful for all of their help, encouragement, and support.”
Strandmark is the Education Archivist and Appalachian Studies Academic Liaison at UK Libraries, where he has worked since 2015.
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