The face of hemp in Washington

Industrial hemp has a lobbyist, and he's a true believer

Chris Moody, Yahoo News
Yahoo News

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(Chris Moody/Yahoo News)

Ben Droz loosened the red paisley tie around his neck, pulled the knot over his head and replaced it with a skinny black cord made of hemp with sterling silver tassels at the ends. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a couple of plastic tie slides—a screaming eagle and a geometric wood piece—that would, when attached, turn the string into a bolo tie.

“This one’s more subtle, more professional,” Droz said, selecting the wooden piece. He pulled it up the string toward his Adam's apple. His bolo tie in place, he was ready to “go lobbying,” as Droz put it.

Droz is the American hemp industry’s main man in Washington. As a registered lobbyist for Vote Hemp, an advocacy group that works to loosen hemp laws, Droz, a 27-year-old from Pennsylvania with a thick head of hair and caterpillar eyebrows that make him appear eternally excited, has made it his life mission to bring the gospel of hemp to the leaders of America’s capital city. For the past five years, Droz has loaded up a hemp briefcase with hemp products — granola bars, seeds and paper, to name just a few — and walked the halls of the Capitol Building preaching the glories of hemp.

You’ve heard of industries having an army of lobbyists. Hemp has as army of one, in the person of Droz.

“It’s an army of passion,” Droz said.


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Droz carries a hemp briefcase full of hemp goodies. (Social Studies DC)

He has his work cut out for him. In the United States, there are tough federal restrictions on importing and growing live hemp seeds. As a variant of the cannabis plant, which comes from the same botanical family as marijuana, hemp can be grown in a limited number of states only for industrial purposes and only with special permission from the Drug Enforcement Administration. Because of these restrictions, most hemp products sold in the U.S. are made overseas and shipped here.

On any given day, Droz is a walking billboard for those products. He sports a tan button-down hemp dress shirt over a white undershirt, also made of hemp. Hemp-knit socks cover his feet. A hemp bolo tie adorns his neck; a hemp bracelet circles his wrist. In his pocket, he carries a hemp wallet, which houses his hemp-paper business cards. In the mornings, he washes his body with hemp soap and styles his hair with hemp hair cream. He even wears hemp-cloth underwear, he says. And he’s saving up money to one day buy a hemp business suit, on which he will place the American flag lapel pin he wears that reads, “Hemp Is Patriotic.”

When I met up with Droz on an April morning to see him in action, his schedule was packed with meetings, photo shoots and presentations about hemp. (When he’s not pushing hemp at the Capitol, Droz moonlights as a professional photographer.) His day would begin with a presentation to conservative activists, followed by a photo gig downtown. Then it was off to Capitol Hill to meet with staff for Colorado Democratic Rep. Jared Polis and Kentucky Republican Rep. Thomas Massie, two of hemp’s biggest supporters in Congress. Thence to the Phoenix Park Hotel near Union Station to scope out a venue for an upcoming cocktail reception for hemp supporters. After a meeting with staff of Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, he ran across town to take headshots for a PR firm, followed by another shoot at a stand-up comedy competition near U Street that would last late into the night.

“It’s nonstop for me, because there’s no real distinction between what counts as working and what’s not,” Droz said, describing his life. It’s a plight he shares with thousands of other single, overworked 20- and 30-somethings in the District of Columbia. “I feel like I have three jobs. I do all of this hemp stuff, then I do photography, then I also do a lot of Facebooking, because networking is a big part of photography. I’m just constantly working around the clock.”

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Big Hemp's main man in Washington, 27-year-old Ben Droz. (Chris Moody/Yahoo News)

Grover Norquist hosted Droz for his first stop of the day, the legendary Wednesday meeting of conservative activists organized by the anti-tax lobbyist for two decades. Droz, who voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 and considers climate change one of the world’s greatest dangers, doesn’t necessarily consider himself a conservative. But cannabis advocates have made inroads with conservatives in recent years by pitching decriminalization as a states' rights issue and a move toward a world with fewer government regulations.

For his presentation, Droz chose to wear the red traditional necktie instead of his beloved bolo, which he left in a pocket.

“With the conservatives,” he explained, “I never want to come across as too fringe.”

When Norquist introduced Droz as a hemp advocate, some in the audience chuckled. Droz ignored it and launched into a brief speech about “harmful federal regulations” intended to appeal to the Reaganite hearts of the assembled.

“We are working to remove harmful federal regulations on industrial hemp production in the U.S.,” Droz said, once the giggling died down. “We can’t grow hemp in the U.S., and that’s exactly what we’re working on.”

Droz rattled off statistics about hemp in the lobbying equivalent of an elevator pitch. It’s a half-billion-dollar industry, he said, but most of the products have to be imported from abroad, and three new states removed their barriers to hemp production in 2014, bringing the number up to 13. “This is not really a controversial issue anymore,” he told the conservatives. Under current law, he said, the states need federal approval to grow hemp, and he needs help passing a bill to give states control over their own hemp laws without federal interference.

On the actual elevator after the meeting, Michael Moroney, who works at the Franklin Center, a conservative journalism nonprofit, shot a knowing smirk at Droz. “Handing out pot candy there, Ben?”

“It’s hemp,” Droz replied. “Not marijuana.”

Moroney smiled. “I know, man,” he said. They both laughed at his ribbing, and Droz promised to get Moroney some hemp granola bars, Droz’s most popular product.

“Everybody makes jokes like that, but the truth is, they know the difference. He knows he’s making a joke,” Droz told me. “They always giggle. But here’s the thing that’s great: They used to giggle and not know what hemp is. But now they giggle and they do know what it is. That’s a big difference.”

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A volunteer harvests hemp during the first known harvest of the plant in more than 60 years, in Springfield, Colo. …

Indeed, in just the past few years, hemp in America has grown from an obscure plant used mostly to produce household decorations for stoners and latter-day hippies and into a source of goods that busy mothers can buy at Costco.

In June 2013, 63 Republicans joined 162 Democrats to pass an amendment to the Farm Bill that authorized hemp research in states where hemp farming is legal. Encouraged by that victory, Droz is working to raise support for the Industrial Hemp Farming Act, which would amend the Controlled Substance Act by decoupling hemp from marijuana — thereby freeing up states to legalize hemp as they wish. On the right, the bill has support from Kentucky Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul and Rep. Massie.

“When I first started this, it was only lefties who are into this,” Droz said. “But it’s really changed a lot, because of the states' rights approach.”

With his presentation at the Norquist meeting over, Droz, juggling his hemp gear and camera equipment, rushed down the street for a photo shoot with a young real estate mogul at D.C.’s City Center, a new complex of apartments, shops and restaurants.

“It’s a crazy day,” Droz muttered. On the way, he berated himself for the two-minute presentation he’d made that morning. “I forgot to mention the Industrial Hemp Farming Act,” he said. “I’m not killing it as hard as I sometimes am. I’m sorry about that.”

Droz wrapped his photo shoot and then dropped off some of his gear at a nearby office of the PR firm where he would shoot later that day. That was when he removed his traditional tie and got comfortable in his bolo, which he calls his “YOLO bolo.”

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Droz fell in love with bolo ties a few years ago when he found that he could buy them made out of hemp and that nearly everyone he met would stop and ask him about his neckwear when he wore bolo ties. He even started designing his own hemp ties, which he sells on Etsy and promotes on his new website, YoloBolo.com.

“I started wearing bolos as a way to get the conversation going about hemp,” he said. “People just love talking about it. The fact that I can talk about it means I can always talk about hemp, which is my goal. People remember me. I’m the guy with the bolo tie. I’m that hemp guy.”

With his new neckwear in place, Droz caught the Metro to Capitol Hill. His next challenge: Educating Capitol Police at a security station of the Longworth House Office Building that hemp seeds can enter the building. Droz dumped a handful of yellow bags full of edible hemp seeds onto the conveyer belt for screening briefcases. An officer snatched one up and inspected it.

“It’s hemp seed,” Droz informed her. “Totally legal.” In order to enter the United States, edible hemp seeds must first be sterilized, and these were.

(The officer holding Droz’s seeds was the same officer who just last year arrested a marijuana activist who was passing out samples of pot candy in a congressional office building.)

Waved in by the officer, Droz stopped for lunch at the bustling Longworth cafeteria, where he spotted Howard Wooldridge, a well-known former police officer and pro-pot activist from Texas who wears an oversized cowboy hat and a shirt that reads, “COPS SAY LEGALIZE POT ASK ME WHY.” Droz bought a salad and sat down.

“Officially there’s a big wall between his issue and mine,” Wooldridge said. “That’s by design from his side, because you don’t want to taint the hemp issue with the marijuana issue. His job is straightforward capitalism, straightforward agricultural issues. Period. It ain’t got nothing to do with drugs.”

While I talked to Wooldridge, Droz ripped open one of the yellow bags of hemp seed.

“It’s time to hempify my lunch,” he declared, dumping the entirety of the bag over the greens and shaking the salad to mix in the seeds.

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Over lunch, Droz went over some of the challenges he faces as one of the only national activists for a cause few Americans think much about and that many lawmakers still see as a drug policy issue.

“I haven’t been accepted by the mainstream agriculture lobbyists,” he said. “Hemp is such a small issue for agriculture. It’s not an issue they talk a lot about. It’s not an issue they’re passionate about. It’s hard to get them engaged as other people. The goal is for me to be mainstream.”

That will take some doing. About the time Droz finished lunch, a lobbyist from the United Nations Foundation spotted the open hemp seed bag and walked over to introduce himself. “Where can I purchase those? You didn’t get this at the House cafeteria, right?” he asked, before picking up the bag and pulling it toward his nose for a sniff.

“Smells like weed,” he said.

Droz looked up at him. “No it doesn’t, OK?” he said. “This is what people say every time. People smell my briefcase. People smell my shirt, thinking it’s going to smell like weed.”

I took the bag and smelled it. You could definitely discern an olfactory resemblance to hemp’s cousin.

“OK maybe a little bit,” Droz conceded. “If you’re untrained, you could say it smells like weed.”

Droz, of course, can smell the difference.

With his belly full of hemp seeds, Droz began his daily rounds to congressional offices. Over the course of a year, he will typically visit hundreds of lawmakers. Sometimes he holds long, prescheduled meetings with staffers sympathetic to his cause. Other times he just pops into offices to say "Hello" and drop off hemp granola bars.

“Sometimes I just do it randomly,” he said.

When he arrived at Massie’s office, the staffers there greeted Droz by his first name. He and an aide sat down in the lawmaker’s personal office and discussed how they could gain more support across the Capitol for the Senate version of Massie’s bill. So far, no one in the upper chamber is taking enough of a leadership role on the issue to do what it takes to get the bill passed, Droz explained.

The theme is a constant one for the one-man, single-issue lobby shop. With so many pressing issues facing lawmakers, how do you get powerful people to care about a single plant, especially when there’s the risk that constituents might confuse it with support for an illegal drug?

It wasn’t always like this. Before live hemp seeds became controversial — and eventually illegal — in the 20th century, they were widely used throughout the United States for all kinds of purposes.

In fact, hemp literally brought people to America.

“The first Americans who came here brought hemp with them. They not only brought hemp, they sailed here using hemp sails,” Droz said of early European settlers. “You used to be able to pay your taxes in barrels of hemp.”

In 1942, during World War II, the Department of Agriculture even made a pro-hemp propaganda film, “Hemp for Victory.”

All of that changed under the Controlled Substances Act in the 1970s, when hemp was lumped as an illegal drug with marijuana. Hemp fell out of fashion for decades and has only recently re-emerged on the U.S. market as an eco-friendly alternative to a variety of products.

“It’s been slow and steady progress over the years,” Vote Hemp President Eric Steenstra — Droz’s boss — said. In 2005, then-Texas Rep. Ron Paul introduced a bill to legalize live hemp seeds; he gained only a couple of co-sponsors. It wasn’t until the farm bill last year that the industry saw its first real win. “Over time we just realized that we had to go door-to-door and educate on this, and that’s what we’ve been doing,” Steenstra said.

And that is exactly what Droz does on Capitol Hill, day after day. His meeting with Massie’s aide on Wednesday led to another meeting with a staff member from Polis’ office, where hemp enjoys support. Sitting on a couch next to Polis’ desk, Droz and an aide brainstormed ideas on how to encourage the DEA to start accepting live seeds inside the country. The DEA has said it’s in a policy review period, putting the hemp industry in a state of limbo. Lawmakers such as Polis could possibly help, Droz said, by sending a letter to the DEA urging it to make a decision.

“Why won’t they do anything about it?” Droz said. “It’s so not OK!”

Before the meeting ended, Droz told the staffer about Vote Hemp’s upcoming lobby day during Hemp History Week (the first week of June), when scores of hemp activists were planning a trip to Washington, D.C. Vote Hemp hopes to hold a reception for lawmakers and a briefing on the issue at that time.

The staffer looked at his calendar and informed Droz of one big problem: Congress won’t be in session that week. Droz took a deep breath.

After the meeting, Droz called Steenstra to report the news of their poor scheduling. If that wasn’t bad enough, Droz also learned it was against the rules to hand out promotional materials bearing a logo at a Senate conference room where they were planning a Hemp History Week event — and they had already printed fliers and literature. “That totally sucks! I don’t know what we’re going to do anymore. Damn it,” Droz said after the phone call. “Hemp History Week is totally falling apart!”

“I can only do so much,” he said.

Despite the moment of panic, Droz never lost his composure. He turned to me. “I’m glad you’re here,” he said. “You get to see what it’s like.”

Before he left the Capitol, Droz ducked into California Democrat Zoe Lofgren’s office unannounced to thank her staff for her supporting industrial hemp farming.

Droz reached into his pocket and pulled out a yellow package of hemp seeds. With a wide smile, he tossed it over the desk of a staff assistant in the front room. “That’s for the congresswoman.”

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(socialstudiesdc.com)




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