Hemp Returns to U.S. Soil After 56 Years -- and Magic Soap King Dr. Bronner's Is Ready to Buy

The first known harvest of hemp—the non psychoactive variety of marijuana—in more than half a century in the U.S. took place September 23 in Colorado, where in the spring the passage of the state’s Amendment 64 legalized the regulated cultivation, sale and adult use of marijuana. While the federal government has said it will not interfere with marijuana in states where it is now legal, it has yet to clarify where it stands on hemp cultivation. Hemp, though non-intoxicant, is considered illegal to cultivate under U.S. drug law. 

Colorado's Amendment 64 both regulates marijuana in a way similar to alcohol, and also directs the general assembly to regulate the cultivation, processing, and sale of industrial hemp. However, the state of Colorado won't officially grant hemp licenses until 2014.

But while the larger legal implications remain unclear, a farmer in the southeastern part of the state named Ryan Loflin interpreted cannabis legalization as paving the way for hemp, and decided not to wait. So, he planted 55 acres of pot's sober sister plant, which made for the historic 'first' harvest in the fall.

The evening prior to the first hemp harvest, legalization advocates gathered to dine at Loflin’s farm. Tucked among advocacy groups like the Hemp Industries Association and Vote Hemp, was the personal care products company Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps.

Dr. Bronner’s  has used imported hemp seed oil in its soaps for more than a decade, and is a dedicated supporter of drug reform, focused on ending the war on drugs. In fact, the company donated more than $100,000 to the voter initiatives in both Colorado and Washington that eventually resulted in legalization of cannabis products in those states.

Dr. Bronners will be one of the first to purchase some of Loflin’s hemp seed,  once they have been pressed and made into oil.

David Bronner, the president of Dr. Bronner’s, told the Colorado’s Brush Tribune News earlier this month:

"We're very excited that Ryan [Loflin] has done this. Ryan has kind of busted it open and taken this necessary step to make hemp a viable crop."

Loflin is now one of about two dozen farmers in Colorado who are growing industrial hemp.

At this week’s International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Denver, Colorado, which was hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance, AlterNet ran into Eric Steenstra, the executive director of the Hemp Industries Association who also does marketing work for Dr. Bronner’s. He attended the conference on the behalf of Dr. Bronner’s, which was co-sponsor of the conference.

“We’re here educating people at conference on our company and products, and supporting the conference and what this stands for,” he told AlterNet. “Drug reform, ending the drug war, is one of top concerns of the company in addition to GMO labeling, ending GMO products, as well as supporting hemp farming.”

Dr. Bronner’s has been an ethically based company since its founding in 1948, when Dr. Emanuel Bronner established the company on what he called “constructive capitalism”—a system based on taking care of the workers first. He put into place a number of policies to reflect his vision, which still hold today. For example, Steenstra said, Dr. Bronner’s caps its executive salaries at five times that of the lowest paid worker.

Steenstra noted that when David Bronner, Dr. Bronner’s grandson, took over as head of the company,  he made the inclusion of hemp products a priority—but due to the U.S.’s longstanding ban on hemp cultivation the company has had to import hemp products from outside the U.S. So, the company advocates strongly for the return of hemp to the states.

“He believes strongly in seeing hemp farming come back [to the states] again,” Steenstra said. “American farmers grew hemp from the time of our founding fathers and the first colonial settlers coming over here all the way through until just after WWII. We just think its really wrong that American farmers are being denied this opportunity. Other parts of the world are able to participate in this but we have to import hemp from Canada or Europe or somewhere else. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

The U.S. is one of the fastest expanding markets for hemp in the world, and imports currently come primarily from Canada and China.  America imported $11.5 million worth of hemp products in 2011, up from $1.4 million in 2000, the majority of which is used to make granola bars, cooking oils, and personal care products.

Steenstra says in addition to supporting American farmers, a local hemp industry will bring the prices down, and mitigate ecological impacts. Dr. Bronner’s is based in California, where just last month a bill to legalize hemp was passed—contingent upon the Justice Department’s reaction

The law requires California to regulate the farming, processing, and sales of hemp for oilseed and fiber, just as soon as the federal government says it’s okay to do so.

“If we could get hemp grown in California just the transporter costs alone should be less expensive, and it’s better to have your supplier closer if you can, so it would be ideal for us to see that,” he says. “I think it would lower the costs.”

Steenstra notes that Dr. Bronner’s is among several companies advocating for hemp in the U.S., and says together with their co-advocates they do their best to lead by example and bring additional supporters to the movement against the war on drugs.

“We let people know where we stand as a company, how we treat our workers, and so on,” he said. “We try to show how it could be done.”

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