Hemp History Week begs the question, what's next for the movement?

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While walking into the Hemp History Week’s 10th Annual celebration at the Music Box in downtown San Diego, there was one big question on my mind: “What’s next for the movement?”

The 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from the federal list of controlled substances and thereby fully legalized hemp production in the U.S. It’s considered a huge victory for farmers, manufacturers, retailers, and hemp enthusiasts everywhere — hence, the jubilant name of Thursday’s event, “Return of the Plant!” Though many people remain unaware of hemp’s properties and capacities, the longtime PR problem stemming from hemp’s association with its cousin, THC-rich cannabis sativa, is on the wane. And due in part to the recent rise of CBD, hemp products are proliferating in the marketplace, writes Danielle Simone Brand.

So, I wondered, what's left for the movement to accomplish?

Instead of “our work is done here,” the message I heard from the speakers and attendees, as well as from Morris Beegle, a hemp entrepreneur and one of the event’s sponsors, was more in line with, “we still have a lot to do.”

Cee Stanley-Anderson, a.k.a. Farmer Cee, tackled one aspect of that work. Upon accepting an award onstage, she went off script to talk about issues of social justice and representation in the hemp and cannabis communities. “I’m a minority of minorities,” she said. “I’m a black woman farming hemp. And, my fellow farmers, you have not made it easy for me to succeed.”

Farmer Cee rattled off a number of sobering stats: 96 percent of privately owned agricultural land is owned by white people; .006 percent of venture capital goes to black women; cannabis-related charges are still the top reason used to arrest black and brown people in this country; people of color are four times more likely to go to jail for cannabis, even though the rates of usage among them and white people are similar. Speaking in regard to both environmental and social impact, she warned, “If we allow this industry to mimic every other industry that’s come before, then we have failed.”

The reception of that statement in a room of mostly white folks felt mixed. Vocal supporters of Farmer Cee’s message made themselves known, while others clapped politely. Some seemed more inclined to celebrate the movement’s victories with a hemp beer (on tap at the bar and pretty tasty, for the record) and to revel in the plant's newfound legitimacy — more than they wanted to talk about the thorny issues she broached. But those issues are part and parcel to reconciling hemp's past history with where it's headed in the future.  

Hemp History is an initiative of the Hemp Industries Association, founded in 1994, and representing over 1,000 hemp farmers, producers, and supporters including soap maker Dr. Bronner’s, CBD company CV Sciences (maker of Plus CBD Oil), and the hemp-based food company Nutiva. Supporters, drawing from the celebrity and political elites, abound from Dr. Andrew Weil to Elizabeth Kucinich to Ziggy Marley.

Once the speakers had finished and the first of three musical guests (Iron Sage Wood, Chali 2na, and Rafi El) took the stage, I sat down with Morris Beegle on the third-floor deck of the Music Box. The Ft. Collins, Colorado-based hemp entrepreneur got into the industry in 2012 and organizes and promotes large events like NoCo and the Southern Hemp Expo.

When asked about the differences between the hemp side and the medical/adult-use side of the cannabis community, he remarked that some tensions exist between those who would like to see cannabinoid-containing products only in dispensaries, and those who are happy that hemp CBD is sold in health food stores and grocery outlets. For his part, he believes that CBD, the non-intoxicating cannabinoid that can be derived from hemp, need not be regulated in the same way as THC. “Everyone should have access,” he said. However, in Beegle’s experience, the tensions between people on the two sides of the industry are limited. “Most of us support the whole plant, from the industrial side to the recreational side.”

Environmental issues, Beegle said, seem to be a higher priority for those farming and producing hemp products — likely because that’s where hemp shines. Hemp can be used for textiles, furniture, paper, fuel, and food. It can be produced without pesticides and requires less water than most crops. Hemp has been shown to help sequester carbon and purify contaminated soils, and it has many more industrial uses than widely recognized. Beegle even handed me a guitar pick made of 30 percent hemp and 70 percent bioplastic, adding that, “we’re three to five years away from large-scale, commercially viable hemp-based plastics — but they’re coming.”

With only about a million acres of land worldwide in use for hemp farming, Beegle says that number needs to grow a hundredfold in order to meet the future demands of large industries. Companies motivated to seek greener packaging and production methods need access to large quantities of hemp products at low cost — that’s the only way they’ll make the switch from plastics, petroleum, cotton, and paper made from wood pulp. “We absolutely need to scale up,” he said.

At the same time, challenges exist for those diving into hemp farming. Not all farmers are making the kind of money they imagined they would from hemp because, as Beegle said, “we’re not quite ready for it.” Large-scale infrastructure for processing hemp needs to be put in place, and the demand for it on the industry side needs to grow. It’s a bit of a catch-22 situation.

Nonetheless, Beegle said that he’s seen tremendous progress since his first foray into the industry almost six years ago and believes that the momentum for hemp has built to a point of no return. Now that it’s fully legal and its uses are continually being researched, developed, and expanded, hemp is here to stay. It’s part of the solution to the climate crisis, but — he’s careful to add — not the only one. For his part, he believes that scaling up the hemp industry will bring people together over the next ten to twenty years to make lasting changes in the ways we consume resources. “The clock is ticking," he said.

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