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posted: 11/24/2013 6:26 AM

Hemp farmer tackles Capitol Hill

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  • Ryan Loflin (center, in suit), the first major American hemp farmer in 60 years, walks with other activists through Hart Senate Office Building in Washington on a lobbying visit.

    Ryan Loflin (center, in suit), the first major American hemp farmer in 60 years, walks with other activists through Hart Senate Office Building in Washington on a lobbying visit.
    Washington post


The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- The farmer is not a gambling man. He has not heard the voice of God on the wind. But if you build it, he told himself, they will come. So, in June, he planted 60 acres of his family's alfalfa farm with a crop that is classified alongside heroin as a "Schedule I" controlled substance. Last month, on those raw plains of southeastern Colorado, he and several dozen volunteers hand-harvested the country's first large-scale hemp crop since the 1950s.

There was no shootout with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The farmer, in fact, is still very much at large, mostly because no one wants to arrest him. He is here, on Capitol Hill on Monday for the Hemp Industries Association's annual conference, in a black suit and black lizard-skin cowboy boots, hearing about how he is "brave" and "courageous" and "a pioneer" who is leading the United States out of its long estrangement from the crop that George Washington farmed.

America, your unsung folk hero of this cannabis-related cultural moment -- your Johnny Hempseed -- is Ryan Loflin, 41, a chapped-lipped, golden-haired, ruddy-skinned father of two who lives in Crested Butte and went to school for welding.

"It was a calculated risk," Loflin says, with Mountain-Time modesty, of his historic crop, "and the time is right."

It wasn't always so. The United States is a big hemp market, but the plant has been conflated with marijuana since "Reefer Madness" in 1936, and domestic industrial production had been nonexistent since Richard Nixon's launch of the war on drugs. Trying to get high on hemp, activists say, is like trying to stupefy yourself on opium by eating poppy-seed bagels.

But 2013 has been a very good year for marijuana's nonpsychoactive cousin. Twenty states introduced pro-industrial-hemp legislation. In April, Kentucky legalized industrial-hemp production. California followed in September. Activists talk about hemp like it can save the country. You can bathe with oil from its seeds! You can build a house out of hempcrete! You can reduce carbon emissions! Hemp could be a multibillion-dollar industry! Hemp could be as big as soy!


The farmer is not a latter-day hippie. He's not on some quest. Nearly 10 years ago, he saw how much Canadian farmers were making with hemp -- three times as much per acre as they were making with wheat, he says -- and he saw a way to transition out of his business building high-end homes from reclaimed barnwood. He had grown tired of trying to satisfy his wealthy clients, who didn't understand that the appeal of using hand-hewn wood from the 1840s was because the colors of the slats don't all match.

"When people can have whatever they want," he says, "it can be frustrating."

Now he drinks a sake glass of cloudy green hemp oil every day, hoping, as hemp boosters claim, that it lowers his cholesterol. By next summer, Colorado will have started issuing licenses for industrial-hemp cultivation, and Loflin's Rocky Mountain Hemp Inc. won't be the only field of dreams in the state. He's courting investors so he can build hemp-processing plants in his childhood hometown of Springfield, Colo., where the hemp farm is. He's building greenhouses so he can grow hemp seedlings over the winter for a second crop that will probably be twice as big as the first.

Loflin has a packet of hemp seeds in his jacket pocket as he roams the Hart Senate Building on Monday with a lobbying entourage that carries sandy-colored briefcases made from organic European hemp. He is a quiet presence in the offices of Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Mark Udall, D-Colo., where activists and lawyers do most of the talking. The goal is to nudge hemp-friendly senators to publicly support S.B. 359, a bill to amend the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 to exclude industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana, to align federal law with changing state laws.

Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., are co-sponsors.

Hemp: Bringing partisans together since, well, 2013.

Loflin makes sure to interject the word "jobs" before each meeting is over.

This is his first time in Washington, but he knows how things work.

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