Long-time American cannabis activist and entrepreneur Dion Markgraaff, who opened one of Amsterdam’s first hemp shops and, later, San Diego’s first medical marijuana dispensary, has passed away in California. Markgraaff’s brother Andre reported he died in his sleep at his home last Sunday, Feb. 21.
Most recently active in the hempcrete construction movement and founding vice president of the board at the U.S. Hemp Building Association (USHBA), Markgraaff dedicated the last 25 years of his life to cannabis, seemingly always joining a handful of other pioneers on the industries’ leading edge.
California & Amsterdam
Markgraaff first got interested in cannabis as a student at San Diego State University. While studying political science and history, he made hemp the topic of his thesis.
After spending time between California and Holland in the early 1990s following graduation, Markgraaff opened a retail hemp shop, “Cannabis in Amsterdam” in Holland in 1993. From there, he observed the first signals of the hemp revival as a few Dutch farmers, and then farmers in Germany started to grow the crop.
When California’s medical marijuana law passed in 1996, Markgraaff said he thought a sea change in cannabis was just ahead.
“I thought a great revolution was gonna happen in California, and everything was going to change,” he later said on a Hemp Barons podcast. “But of course everyone here was so dang’d afraid of the government that no one was doing anything. I ended up opening the first medical dispensary in San Diego.”
Markgraaff’s activism in California eventually led to his being prosecuted and fighting the government for nearly 15 years, a period he called “a totally horrible time that ended up with the government stealing my child, and me making a plea bargain to leave the country.”
‘Hatred’ on CBD
When Markgraaff returned to Europe, the CBD sector was just coming life; he started to promote its benefits – and got a surprise. “There was a lot of hatred in the beginning on CBD. It was weird because a lot of people I helped in the industry turned on me because I was promoting another aspect of the plant. I found it very strange because, to me, the plant is one big whole thing and we want to promote the whole thing,” he said on the Hemp Bulls podcast.
By 2016, Markgraaff’s professional work in CBD had landed him as President at HempMeds Mexico, which essentially opened Mexico to cannabinoids for the first time legally. Raul Hector Elizalde Garza, President at Hempmeds Latin America who worked with Markgraaff in Mexico, lauded his friend for “celebrating the small achievements but always looking for the total decriminalization of the plant.”
Fellow cannabis advocates gave tributes upon learning of Markgraaff’s passing:
“Dion inspired and helped many of us over the years,” hemp veteran Chris Boucher, CEO at Farmtiva, a California hemp ag services company, said in a Facebook post. “Dion was instrumental in helping smuggle our hemp seeds for our research at the USDA Research center back in 1994,” said Boucher, who first met Markgraaff at his Amsterdam shop in 1993.
Those seeds led to America’s first hemp fields in over 50 years, Boucher said. “It wouldn’t have happened with out him.”
Markgraaff was “one of the most dedicated and beloved activists, and a dear friend,” Dan Herer, son of legendary cannabis activist Jack Herer, said in a Facebook post. “Always someone who would do everything he could to help others.”
“Dion has been arguably one of the true leaders and advocates for the cannabis industry. He was a sincere, true person who for decades fought to bring the cannabis plant back to people,” said Ukranian hemp builder Sergiy Kovalenkov, of Kiev-based Hempire, who first met Markgraaff in Colorado four years ago and served with him at USHBA. “His legacy will live on, and his soul will be a part of every single hempcrete project that we will complete in the future.”
Late passion for building
USHBA and hemp construction were Markgraaff’s latest passions. While he said he’d first learned about hemp construction from French visitors to his Amsterdam shop back in the 1990s, at the time he only found it another interesting application for industrial hemp. “I thought it would blow up and be huge,” he later said, “But I didn’t necessarily concentrate on it.”
That changed, Markgraaff said, as sustainability issues came more sharply into focus. “With our eco crisis and knowing how much this (hemp construction) can address it, I became more and more attuned to it,” he said.
“Those are just such big factors in the whole humanity survival scheme of things, that I’ve been concentrating all my effort on that,” Markgraaff said. “Unless we really dive in and get this going ASAP we’re not gonna be able to turn this thing around.”
Rolling hemp house
Markgraaff put together a crew that built a mobile hemp tiny house for the Cannabis Village at Earth Day in San Diego’s Balboa Park in 2017. At the same event the following year, “We unsuccessfully tried to burn down the house with a torch,” Markgraaff wrote in HempToday Magazine in 2019, noting proudly that “two years after being constructed, this hemp house classroom was moved an hour on the freeway at over 55 mph without any pieces falling off!”
As USHBA formed that year, Markgraaf, began working tirelessly on behalf of the group, said Eric McKee, a fellow founding board member.
“Having Dion as one of the key figures in the formation of the USHBA has been crucial to the success of our association. And from the beginning he’s been our biggest advocate,” McKee told HempToday. “We have a tremendous amount of gratitude to Dion. His advocacy has not only led to the decriminalization of marijuana but has begun a green construction revolution. And he was a better friend than advocate.”
Most recently Markgraaff had been holding hempcrete building workshops every Saturday morning in Vista, California, with one of his most recent projects being “HempChurch,” a demonstration building – and something of a shrine to hempcrete – last year.
In addition to his position at the USHBA, at the time of his death, Markgraaff was also vice president of communications for North Carolina-based Hemp Technologies. He also previously worked for General Hemp, San Diego, a private equity company founded to support development of the hemp industry. Markgraaff was founder in 2002 of the San Diego chapter of cannabis patient rights group Americans for Safe Access.