American Cannabis Entrepreneurs Invited to Congress
Doug Fine on the Hemp On the Hill Summit, Washington DC
In politics, there’s the stage, and then there’s backstage. They both play roles. In Washington, DC on Groundhog Day, politically-connected U.S. hemp industry players (“hempsters”) from seven states shook off their astonishment at being invited to Capitol Hill at all and found themselves center stage at a Hemp On the Hill Summit. The event was sponsored by U.S Representative Jared Polis of Colorado (D), with help from Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon (D), Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky (R) and U.S. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon (D).
Bipartisanship aside, the truly startling component of the event was that it happened, Capitol Hill not traditionally being a cannabis-friendly place. Consider that era over.
Colorado Hemp Company’s Morris Beegle found a copy of his company’s hemp-printed Declaration of Independence posted on a Congressional office wall by the end of the day – as well as a platform to shout out his forthcoming NoCo Hemp Expo. Oregon’s Natural Good Medicines, purveyor of home-grown, hemp-based salves and oils, was singled out in a speech by Wyden.
“Didn’t think I’d live to see the day again,” said Edgar Winters, Natural Good Medicines’ 65-year-old co-founder, and a man who first cultivated hemp in Alabama as a child. “Did you see that last young lady who was asking questions our table? She’s from (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell’s office.”
Winters sort of whispered the name of the conservative Republican like a Hobbit who had invited an orc to tea. “We’ve come a long way from just say no,” was my take. Indeed, the thought crossed my mind as I toted my own hemp plastic and hempcrete building samples through the halls of Congress, there was a time (not too long ago) when pulling up carry-on bags full of cannabis fiber through congressional security would have elicited a different response.
Woolsey a longtime hempster?
Other established hemp companies, including Nutiva, CannaEnergy and the U.S. industry’s fiber elder statesman, EnviroTextiles, displayed wares at the Expo, which was keynoted by former CIA Director James Woolsey, himself a longtime hempster.
Such was the stage right in the foyer of the staid, marble Rayburn Office Building. What followed, part of the ritual of American federal politics, was the backstage side of the proceedings. Organizers of groups such as the Hemp Industry Association, whose annual conference sold out months in advance in 2015, spent the post-expo afternoon shuttling to meetings with on-the-fence legislators (and established hempsters of both major U.S. parties), aimed at pushing final passage of S134/H.R.525: The Industrial Hemp Farming Act.
That bill, which has eleven co-sponsors in the Senate, including three Republicans (McConnell, from major hemp state Kentucky, among them), is the final step to commercial hemp production in the U.S. At the moment, the American hemp industry labors under a research provision that can be (and is being) broadly interpreted, but makes components like seed import more difficult.
Knock down the hurdles
That hasn’t stopped Stateside acreage from increasing by a factor of ten annually since the federal research provision passed in 2014. Still, as Summit host Polis pointed out, no new industry, let alone one this important, needs hurdles. It needs nurturing, and that was the point of the bipartisan Hemp On the Hill shindig. There is, after all, a billion-dollar industry waiting on the other side of this bill.
The hero of modern Kentucky hemp, James Comer, who jump-started the industry three years ago as the state’s agriculture commissioner and is now running for Congress on a hemp-emphasizing platform, put it simply. “I’m a farmer. Speaking as a farmer, this is a great crop.”
The other main talking point on display this day was articulated by the event’s co-host Massie: “This is a freedom issue,” he told me.
‘Gotta be in it to win it’
Undeterred by some insiders calling passage a longshot in an election year, the Colorado and Virginia hempster contingents in particular were out in force. Some groups had five figure Beltway lobbyists on retainer. (Some things in Congress haven’t yet changed. Oh well, as the old New York state lottery ad used to have it, gotta be in it to win it, one supposes with a sigh.)
Samantha Walsh, a board member of a new organization, the National Hemp Association, said the meetings were strategic, and aimed at key legislative committee members whose support of the bill is considered essential for passage.
“We have momentum,” said Ben Droz, director of congressional outreach for the 16-year-old hemp advocacy organization Vote Hemp. “I won’t predict when it will pass but it will pass.”
Which is to say, it remains to be seen whether the Groundhog saw his shadow this year. I know my kids, both human and goat, are waiting.
Author’s Disclaimer: I have a working relationship with nearly everyone mentioned in this story. That reflects the short time longer that the hemp world remains a small family. Hempsters being humans, schisms are already starting to appear. “All this Big Time Success,” Willie N. reminds us, “has us fighting like the Hatfields and McCoys.” All we need is the Big Time Success. But that is coming to most anyone who is already in hemp and sticks with it. So let’s help one another along the way. Because in addition to assisting our bottom line, the return of hemp is allowing for the health of our families, and families around the world.
Doug Fine is a solar-powered goat herder and bestselling author of Farewell, My Subaru, Too High to Fail, Hemp Bound and, most recently, First Legal Harvest, a hemp-printed monograph. Sustainable cannabis, a farmer-benefitting hemp economy and energy independence: this is why Willie Nelson calls Doug’s work “a blueprint for the America of the future.” A regular on National Public Radio in the States and in the New York Times and Washington Post, Doug has appeared on the Tonight Show and Conan, testified before the United Nations, and spoke about the importance of Digital Age goat herding in a TED Talk.
Learn more about Doug Fine at dougfine.com.
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