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Kristy McKinney’s career change from law enforcement to cannabis farmer involved much more than just swapping out her badge for a license to grow.

The former Birmingham police officer had to learn all about cultivating plants and producing CBD while reckoning with her old job and making arrests for marijuana. At times, she struggles with guilt over her role in a War on Drugs she now believes unfairly targeted both marijuana and Black men.

“It’s very unethical for us to be profiting off this plant when we haven’t even attempted to figure out a system for getting these people home,” McKinney said.

Although McKinney began her law enforcement career thinking marijuana was a gateway to more dangerous drugs, it was police work that led indirectly to her change of heart. It started in 2017 when McKinney responded to a call about motor vehicle break-ins.

A victim said thieves had hit two of his vehicles. McKinney had just returned to patrol after six years in the detective bureau handling burglaries. She knew investigators, and the victim, needed her to nail this report.

Disaster struck when she stepped out of the Ford Explorer and collapsed.

“It was like my body exploded on the inside, the pain was so strong,” McKinney said. “When I came to, I was in the street.”

McKinney had recently taken medical leave for a hysterectomy and thought the pain was related to surgical complications. However, medical exams ruled that out and instead pointed toward another culprit: a spinal injury caused by an on-duty car crash several years earlier.

McKinney found herself stuck in medical limbo, unable to get surgery without first receiving approval from the city, a process that became lengthy and contentious. Her neurologist referred her to pain management.

That started McKinney down the path from Birmingham to the hemp farm in St. Clair County where she lives today.

On the farm

McKinney and her husband have cleared several acres of land near Pell City, about 35 miles east of Birmingham, and built a tunnel house as part of a cost-sharing program with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To become certified organic, they must allow the land to rest for several years before planting hemp and other crops.

It has given her time to learn more about farming and process the ethical dilemmas her career change has raised.

“Our space is going to look like this until I can get a system in place to help the people who I feel like I victimized by making the arrests that I made,” McKinney said. “I know I was doing my job and I know I have done nothing wrong, but I don’t agree with those laws that were in place.”

Her bad experiences with prescription opioids forced her to consider cannabis, which she once considered addictive and dangerous. Now she wants to grow hemp and create CBD products for first responders with chronic pain.

She spent many years patrolling Birmingham’s public housing complexes and often encountered people who used illegal substances.

“I knew there was a lot of struggle and pain and drug abuse,” McKinney said. “I couldn’t figure out how an entire community could be suffering the same way.”

In the city

McKinney grew up in Birmingham and knew several people caught up in crime. Still, from an early age, she wanted to join the police department. As a child, she spotted her cousin’s stolen car speeding down the street. Her mother rallied the rest of the family to track down the thief outside a nearby pharmacy.

“I don’t know what she said, but I do know she had her pistol,” McKinney said. “She was known for carrying her .38.”

The entire family was excited that her cousin had his car back, McKinney said.

“When his sister embraced me, I could feel something I never felt before,” she said. “It was just like, well, how do I do this again?”

McKinney applied for the police academy as soon as she turned 21 and gravitated toward the unit that patrolled public housing. Although she knew the neighborhoods well, she said she found it difficult to understand the hopelessness and suffering she encountered.

“I needed answers,” McKinney said. “I used to think it was in the water system. I used to think it was in the fast food. I would spend hours on calls just trying to mentor people. It’s like a revolving door. Putting words down on a report didn’t fix anything.”

McKinney transferred to former Mayor Larry Langford’s protective detail for a year. When that ended, she became a detective in the burglary division. She enjoyed helping victims and recovering stolen property.

But she missed patrol and asked to go back. In 2016, she began suffering from contractions in her lower abdomen. Her gynecologist diagnosed fibroids – a type of benign tumor – and recommended a hysterectomy. In 2017, she took time off for the surgery with plans to return as a patrol officer.

McKinney collapsed on her first day back in 2017.

Refusing pain pills

Her injury caused constant pain and made it difficult to walk. Doctors offered her opioids and shots designed to block the source of the pain. As an officer, McKinney was afraid of becoming addicted to prescription opioids. After three or four months of treatment, she felt edgy and different.

“I explained to my pain management doctor that I had turned into something that I recognized,” McKinney said. “And what I had recognized was what I had experienced patrolling the most underserved communities. I had started to experience that lack of care and concern for other people, and that was not acceptable for me.”

McKinney stopped taking the pills. That caused her to lose access to pain block injections offered at the clinic. Pain management agreements often require patients to prove they are taking opioid medications instead of selling them. So, a patient like McKinney who tests negative for opioids at appointments risks termination from care.

It seemed like doctors could only offer opioids for pain. Then a friend mentioned a colleague, who had left a nursing to grow cannabis in Colorado. At that point, McKinney was finally willing to consider it.

She opened her computer and started doing research.

“That night saved my life,” McKinney said. “I don’t know how much longer I could have laid there. I don’t know how much longer I would’ve laid there suffering. I may have had 180, 200 Lortabs on the bedside table. The doctors kept prescribing them. They said there’s nothing else. We don’t know how to treat you. I went through five pain management doctors.”

After researching and traveling out of state, McKinney found that CBD and medical marijuana treated her pain more effectively than opioids. By 2018, she had retired as a police officer and changed her mind about cannabis, the plant family that produces both marijuana and its non-intoxicating cousin hemp.

She applied to cultivate hemp and plans to extract and sell CBD oil.

CBD plans

She wants to create a product for first responders, including police officers, but it’s complicated by the legal status of marijuana. Some CBD oils contain small amounts of THC that can cause people to test positive for marijuana, according to Dr. Peter Grinspoon, an internist and cannabis expert at Harvard Medical School.

Pure or broad-spectrum CBD oils typically don’t contain any THC, but Grinspoon said the industry is unregulated, making it difficult to determine which products have compounds that trigger positive drug tests.

“If it’s truly pure CBD with no THC, it’s almost impossible to test positive on a drug test,” Grinspoon said. “It all comes down to the quality of the CBD.”

Grinspoon said CBD has proven benefits for children with epilepsy. Many users also take it for anxiety, insomnia and chronic pain, he said. Some users report drowsiness after taking it, Grinspoon said.

Departments may have different policies regarding CBD use, McKinney said. Those that discourage or prohibit it may leave injured workers with fewer pain relief options, limiting them to over the counter or opioid medications, McKinney said.

License to grow

McKinney said she is trying to track down all the arrests for marijuana she made during her career at the department. Last year, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin issued a blanket pardon for all marijuana arrests between 1990 and 2020, which affected up to 15,000 people, according to the city.

McKinney said her journey answered some questions she had at the beginning of her career. She believes chronic pain – both physical and psychic – caused much of the hopelessness and substance use she encountered on patrol. She thinks widespread opioid prescriptions fueled desperation and addiction as users turned to harder drugs such as heroin and fentanyl. Overdose deaths hit record-high levels in 2020 and 2021, driven mostly by large increases in illicit fentanyl.

Now she believes CBD and even medical marijuana can provide an alternative for some patients. Lawmakers legalized the plant last year for patients with qualifying medical conditions, but members of the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission are still working out the details of how the substance will be produced and sold.

McKinney has a license to grow hemp. She said she might be interested in exploring certification for medical marijuana too. Although she no longer wears a badge, she said she still wants to help the communities she once served.

“When I asked God to show me how to fix it, I didn’t know what I was asking for,” McKinney said. “He had to really make me go through what I witnessed people suffer from in order for me to get a clearer understanding of how I could help for real.”

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