DOPE Interviews | Hemp History Week: Morris Beegle

Co-Founder and President of Colorado’s “We Are For Better Alternatives”

Hemp has been making history for at least 10,000 years, and it’s still just getting started. This June 3 – 9, the millennia-long heritage of hemp – the name used for industrial applications of the cannabis plant – will get its due at the 10thannual Hemp History Week, an industry-wide initiative of the Hemp Industries Association (HIA) and the largest hemp educational campaign in the country, with events taking place in Wisconsin, Kentucky and San Diego.

The 2019 theme is “Return of the Plant,” in reference to the full legalization of domestic hemp production in the 2018 Farm Bill, ending nearly 90 years of Drug War-related prohibition that’s throttled education and scientific study of the ancient crop’s modern applications.

As co-founder and president of Colorado’s WAFBA (We Are for Better Alternatives) family of brands, Morris Beegle is one of many advocates benefitting from and prognosticating about the quiet commercial revolution this regulatory change could create, with new cannabis industries extending far beyond CBD topicals into building materials and bio-plastics. His companies Tree Free Hemp, specializing in paper products, and Silver Mountain Hemp Guitars are also sponsoring Hemp History Week for the fourth year in a row, with the latter contributing one of their cannabis axes, whose volume knobs go to 11, to the San Diego auction and raffle.

A week in advance of the event, DOPE Magazine caught up with Beegle over the phone to discuss both what more people should understand about hemp’s storied past, and what they need to know about its regenerative future.

DOPE MAGAZINE: Are you looking forward to Hemp History Week?

MORRIS BEEGLE: Yeah, it’s gonna be a good time. I’m flying to New York tomorrow to go to Cannabis World Congress the next few days, then heading to Albany for another event, the US Hemp Expo’s conference, that I’m speaking at. Then I’ll be flying to San Diego for Hemp History Week and coming up to LA for a few days, so I’m on the road for a couple weeks.

In doing those conferences, what’s the most important thing about hemp’s history that you think more people should understand, that you try and convey?

I would just say, it needs to be understood that we’ve been using this crop since, really, the dawn of civilization. Cannabis has been part of our human evolution since we started evolving. When we started agriculture back 10,000 years ago, cannabis was one of the very first crops we started with. It’s important to know we’ve been using it for materials from ropes and canvases and clothing [to] hemp seeds for food, for thousands of years. This isn’t anything new, it just happens to be new now because it’s been banned for 80 years, and we’ve been fighting for a long time to get it legal in the United States. We’ve been importing it from all over the place, but now we’re finally going to really grow it legally on the federal level since the 2018 Farm Bill – really, the 2014 Farm Bill, because that opened it up to pilot programs.

But it seems like people forget there’s a whole history before prohibition.

Absolutely. Our country was founded with hemp as one of our main crops. We used to pay taxes with it in the 1700s. We used it for wagon covers coming across exploring the rest of the United States. Hemp was very important in clothing and sails and rope.

We couldn’t have gotten here without the hemp sails and rope.

It’s an important part of our agriculture.

There’s been a change of late with the 2014 and then 2018 Farm Bills, as you mentioned, and Hemp History Week’s theme this year is “Return of the Plant,” so from your perspective, what’s happening in the hemp industry now and looking into the future, with such a monumental shift?

There’s information out there from Vote Hemp, which is also a sister organization with Hemp History Week and Hemp Industries Association. It’s been kind of a three-headed group anchored by Dr. Bronner’s. Dr. Bronner’s has been the anchor of this since 2001, when there was a whole shift with the Hemp Industry Association. Anyway, we haven’t been growing the plant in the US for 80 years until 2014, and then we started with 10,000 acres, then 25,000 acres, and then this last year we grew 78,000 acres total in the country. This year it’s expected that that will double to more than 150,000 acres. Colorado alone has registered at least 100,000 acres right now – there’s not enough genetics out there to plant that much acreage, but there is this huge, huge interest in putting this crop in the ground.

Farmers from across the country now have the opportunity to start growing this crop and rotate it in, and hopefully start making money. Because agriculture on the whole is really in the shitter. I’m not the best person to go in-depth with all the problems of our agriculture, but from a commodity standpoint, a land standpoint, natural disaster and subsidies … our agriculture system is bad. We’ve got monoculture with corn and soy and cotton that’s decimated our soil in so many parts, and that soil needs to be regenerated. We have to start looking at growing organically and regeneratively and making this transition, for the sake of our species, really. Big agriculture is one of the biggest problems with climate change, using this petrochemical fertilizer on our crops and then that runoff going into the waterways and oceans. It’s creating devastation in our ecosystems.

Our hope, as an industry, is that this crop can really take off, and we can start planting millions of acres that can displace some of this corn and soy and wheat and cotton, and hopefully lead the way with good stewardship of the earth. So the other crops may start to follow suit. That’s all big industry (like the petroleum industry), we’re trying to displace that too. We have to get away from stuff that’s polluting the earth, and I think hemp is something that provides us hope that that can lead the way and help us be more socially responsible and humanity-driven.

The plant is returning for the reason right now, because there’s a shift in our society, and people are becoming more aware of what’s going on with our climate and our planet. I think we see hemp as an opportunity to explain this in a bigger way and be part of the solution. It’s going to take a lot more hemp to solve our problems on this planet, but I think it’s one of the solutions that can bring people together to discuss the greater problems we have. It’s returning at the right time, and it’s kind of like a superhero, I would say. It’s a super-plant, a super-fiber, a super-nutrient. It’s the superhero returning at this critical time in earth’s existence.

It does seem that a lot of these regenerative efforts are crystallizing around hemp and cannabis, as something to really break up those monocultures and change things in agriculture.

Right. And if you look at the marijuana business that gets criticized quite a bit because it’s not sustainable, there’s a shit-ton of plastic, and it needs to become more conscious as well. At least the conversation is happening. Cannabis is at the center – and it’s all cannabis, hemp, marijuana, it’s all cannabis. How can we take this plant and change the way we think about our society and how we do things every day?

What are some of the most exciting applications being tested out or expanded right now?

The thing that really got me into hemp was the fiber side and the farm side, being able to regenerate the soil and do phytoremediation and have fiber products able to replace fossil fuels, petrochemicals, plastics and building materials. I think, from an industrial standpoint, a lot of stuff can be created from the hemp stalk for ingredients to displace a lot of this petroleum, wood, or cotton-based commodities that are really high inputs and resource-driven, with high water needs. There’s a lot of stuff that can be done with hemp, and I think we need to look at agriculture and those bio-based materials to start really replacing the fossil fuel and toxic chemical side of things.

[Hemp] sequesters carbon and puts it back in the ground. What we need to do is take the carbon out of the air and put it back into the soil and oceans. Growing lots and lots and lots of hemp will help do that. Also, as we grow it over and over, we don’t have to chop down the trees, which are great carbon sucks into the soil. The timber industry has argued that we have more trees today than we did 100 years ago. Whether that’s true or not, we don’t have any old forests now, but they’re building tree farms with GMO trees, where nothing lives, and the soil is depleted of all its nutrients.

The plastic side is another big thing. HempPlastic.com is now up and running, and the guy behind the whole thing is Paul Benhaim, who’s been in the hemp game for a long time and written several books and has been working on the bioplastic thing for 25 years. They’ve finally figured out a lot of the things technically and chemistry-wise, and they’re going to [attempt to] process 50 million pounds of bioplastic from hemp this year – which is just a drop in the bucket compared to the whatever 500 million or billion tons, or whatever the crazy number is of the plastics we use every year. It’s ridiculous. At least, this is a starting point where we haven’t been before, and the commercialization of bioplastics can result in great progress in the next three to five to 10 years.

Investment money’s coming into this industry now. Most of it has been driven towards the cannabinoid and CBD side, but everybody knows there’s way more to it than that. There’s the grain side and food side and industrial side, and there’s going to be serious investment made in processing plants with manufacturing facilities in these areas that will be built specifically for that. Once that happens, we’ll have materials to take to market, to big companies that are making products that have fossil fuel ingredients and are looking for better alternatives. We know the general public wants us to go that way, there’s a shifting consciousness you can tell by how many people want organic foods and natural healthy products on the market. Corporations, if they have a hemp alternative for a filler that will make your product more efficient and way more green than the toxic input, you’re gonna make that shift.

We’re not there yet. There’s a lot of technology that’s out there that’s cutting edge but just hasn’t been funded correctly. Europe, for example, who’s ahead of us in textiles, has been doing this since the mid-‘90s with hemp flax. Still, we’re going to grow more acreage than Europe this year. We’re gonna dwarf everybody’s production in the next five years.

What do you think are the biggest barriers that still remain for the hemp industry to overcome?

For one, the lack of clarity today from the FDA and the USDA as to what exactly the regulatory framework is going to be – particularly on the cannabinoid side. I don’t think that makes any difference to the fiber side. The biggest barrier to the fiber side is we don’t have processing capabilities currently here in the US, nor do we have the right genetics and acreage to supply a couple of big processing plants with materials. We’ve got a few fiber processers here, but the vast majority of the materials being grown for the cannabinoid side are more of the marijuana horticulture model, not necessarily for grain and fiber. The majority of money has been put into the CBD side of the business in the US, and that’s going to have issues in the next 12 to 18 months, as far as an oversupply of material that cannot get processed. The price of CBD is going to drop significantly, and there’ll be a shift towards grain into fiber, into diversifying for bioplastics, paper, building materials…

In the course of the next three to five years, there’ll be plenty of investment to build out processing facilities. Once you have the Midwest come online with Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa, which have been growing thousands and thousands of acres of corn, when that switches over to hemp for grain and fiber, there’ll be a shift in the market big time. It’s coming. It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll, and we’ve still got some miles to climb. But that’s alright. We’ve got time.

Jeffrey Rindskopf

Jeffrey Rindskopf is a freelance writer and editor based in Seattle, born and raised in southern California. He attended film school at Chapman University before beginning his career as a freelancer in 2014, writing fiction and articles covering travel, food, and culture. When he isn't writing, Jeffrey likes to travel or simply melt into the couch while consuming some of his favorite media.

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