After working in the entertainment industry for over 25 years, Morris Beegle decided it was time for a change in career path. Inspired by the possibilities the hemp plant holds, as well as by the hemp industry’s rapidly changing landscape, he joined forces with Elizabeth Knight, who had a 20-year long sales and project management career, and together the two dove into creating alternative options to everyday products, such as hemp-based T-shirts and paper products. Seven years later, the duo, based out of Loveland, Colorado, now owns a handful of companies that utilize hemp, including a hemp-based printing company called Tree Free Hemp, Silver Mountain Hemp Guitars, and One Planet Hemp, which focuses on the production of promotional hemp-based merchandise for companies and musicians. Each of these companies lies under Beegle and Knight’s umbrella company WAFBA, which stands for We Are For Better Alternatives.
When they’re not running their companies, they’re busy producing the world’s largest hemp exhibition and trade show NoCo Hemp Expo — a place where hemp industry folk gather to learn about new policy and technologies, showcase their newest creations, and participate in panel discussions.
Civilized caught up with Morris Beegle and discussed cannabis policy and social justice issues, the parallels between the music industry and hemp space, what a hemp guitar sounds like, what’s next for WAFBA.
You produce the NoCo Hemp Expo, the largest gathering of hemp industry professionals in the world. The expo focuses on many topics including art and business, but you also have an educational section of the expo. What has NoCo Hemp Expo done in past years to educate business owners in the cannabis space about how marijuana and hemp laws have negatively affected communities of color? Do you have any programming surrounding that for this coming year?
We’ve really been focused on the industrial, nutritional, and therapeutic side of cannabis. We have not been focused on the medical and recreational side, the high THC side, and while within our programming we’ll differentiate from policy and regulation, and it will be brought up that people of color have disproportionately been punished for cannabis and gone to jail. We’re not in the marijuana side of it. We’re really in the farm and agricultural side of it, which is a whole different beast. But there is a disparity when it comes to agriculture, as well, because the vast, vast majority of agricultural land in the United States is owned by white people and predominantly white men. So there is a disparity there and there are not a lot of black farmers, particularly black women farmers, out there.
There was this piece at Hemp History Week in San Diego that Civilized also covered [about] black female farmers [who] got up and spoke about the disparity in the agricultural community and black women getting funding from hedge funds and investments and this sort of thing. There’s a tremendous disparity there. We’ve really been focusing on educating about plants, what’s coming down the line policy-wise, and all the things the plant can do. We kinda just stayed the course of talking about general education things, not so much social justice in regards to race and some of the criminal side of things because the approach has been different on the hemp side of things than on the marijuana side of things.
You work on the hemp and the agricultural side, but you can’t necessarily completely separate hemp and marijuana. What are your thoughts on what the government should do regarding the humans who are currently incarcerated on cannabis charges?
It’s all one plant, and we preach one plant. We talk about the legal differences. The only difference is the percentage of THC — the one compound that can get you high. If it’s above 0.3% THC, it’s considered marijuana. If it’s below 0.3% THC, it’s considered hemp. That’s the only difference. When it comes to people who have felonies for cannabis, at the federal level when the farm bill was signed, everybody could participate. Senator Grassley from Iowa, who’s a hemp hater, forced this clause in there, which basically prohibits any drug felon in the last ten years to participate in the hemp industry.
So if you have a cannabis felony on your record, as far as the federal law goes, you’re not allowed to participate unless you’re grandfathered in from the state program. So there’s plenty of people in the hemp industry who have these cannabis felonies against them, and it’s bullshit. They should be allowed to be in the industry and it’s something that a large part of the industry is fighting back against. Unfortunately it’s signed into law. There has to be another piece of legislation that would be introduced to nullify this.
What I would love to see the government do is expunge and wipe out everybody’s cannabis charges. Nobody should have that on their record. Recreational marijuana is gonna be legal across the country in five years. That’s the direction that the country’s going. The country wants it. The only reason that it’s not legal now is politics. Nobody should be punished for cannabis, period.
These laws disproportionately affect people of color. Black men and Hispanic men would be the top two. Then probably black women and Hispanic women from there. White people definitely get off easy, and we use the substance just as much as anybody else.
Prior to entering the cannabis industry, you worked in entertainment for over 25 years. How did you transition from working in the music industry to eventually creating guitars made out of hemp?
From 1988 to 1995, I worked for a large music and video distributor and I was a west coast manager for California, Washington, and Hawaii, taking care of music and video retail stores and dealing with labels and buying product. Then from 1995 to 2011 I had a company called Happy Scratch Entertainment — a one stop shop for video production, promotion, and management amongst other things.
I took that music business experience and translated it to the hemp industry… and I did it at a good point in time, where the foundation of the industry was really starting to get laid. That has led to all these entities under the WAFBA umbrella.
When doing the event side of things, I found a company in Canada that was making a prototype hemp guitar and I bought a couple of them. I was like, “Hey we’d love to start our own line of hemp guitars. Would you custom make hemp guitars for us?” So last year I contracted with them and we launched Silver Mountain Hemp.
Does a guitar made out of hemp sound different from a traditionally made guitar?
It’s a hemp bast fiber shell that’s molded around a wood core. It’s still got a wood neck and regular hardware. It’s really good. It would be similar to a composite body that a lot of guitar companies make. As far as the tonal quality of it, there’s really not much difference. If you load it up with pickups, let’s say you got Seymour Duncan P90 Pickups and my Silver Mountain SD body style, compared to Gibson SG body that’s got the same pickups in it, you play it through the same amp or the same pedal, I think the tonal difference would be negligible.
Are you making any other hemp-based instruments?
We’re gonna be making hemp guitar cabinets that also have hemp cone speakers in them. The hemp cone speakers are from a company called Tone Tubby that’s been making hemp cone speakers for 20 plus years in California. People like Carlos Santana and Jimmy Herring from Widespread Panic have used them. We’re also making ukuleles, guitar straps, guitar picks, and volume knobs. They sound good. It’s kind of a novelty, but it’s a custom thing. It’s good to help promote the plant and the industry.
You’re creating a lot of things out of hemp, utilizing this ancient tool. What is the current environmental impact of using hemp products?
Industries such as petroleum, corn, soy, wheat, and cotton have a high environmental impact — they pollute the atmosphere, soil, waterways, and oceans. There are GMO crops that require a lot of chemicals and herbicides and pesticides and fertilizers, and they’re water intensive and they deplete our soil. Basically it kills our soil, so nothing else can grow there except these monoculture crops that require chemicals to grow, and we’re putting that stuff in our bodies and into our waterways and oceans — they’re wreaking havoc on our environment.
Deforestation from the timber industry disrupts environments and ecosystems all over the planet. A lot of this timber and cotton could be replaced by hemp. The hemp plant can do a lot of the same things that corn, soy, and petroleum can do, too. Hemp crops, if they’re grown organically, nourish the soil and replenish it with nutrients. What we’ve done as a society over the course of the last 100 years with the industrial revolution and the way our agriculture system is, we’ve got 99 percent conventional farming going on on our planet. We have to make a shift. I think that major industries will make the shift if the consumers want the shift. And I think that right now, with hemp being legalized, it gives farmers another option besides planting corn or soy and to make a crop they feel good about that will do something good for the planet and good for their kids and grandkids.
Are there any hemp products on the market where you think the original, non-hemp alternative is better?
That’s a good question. There is. I wear hemp shirts and socks, but I wear other types of clothing, too. Not everything has to be 100 percent hemp. Hemp is a good ingredient, a good blend, something that will make the product greener. But it doesn’t have to be 100 percent hemp and hemp oftentimes really works as a good blended component into a final product.
You were on the forefront of using legalized industrial hemp in Colorado. What were some of the barriers and challenges of being one of the first entities to be able to legally utilize the plant?
When we went out to try to sell products to stores, it was sometimes challenging to get them to understand the difference between hemp and marijuana. Some people were receptive to it, but a lot of people at that time were really still looking at it as one and the same. It was stigmatized. Since then, particularly here in Colorado, it’s been normalized quite a bit. Breaking through, at least locally, took a little bit.
Sounds like an artist trying to break through in the music industry.
There are a lot of parallels between the people in the music industry and in the cannabis industry. A lot of creatives, a lot of passionate people, very opinionated. People just click together with the energy that they jive with. I feel really good about the group of people that we’ve aligned with and I’m really excited about where things are at now. I’m excited about where we can go as a society looking at alternatives. We’ve got all these other drugs out there that are now coming into the play for ending the war on drugs. The next phase after cannabis is mushrooms — there’s all kinds of medicinal benefits and industrial uses of not just psilocybin, but regular mushrooms, too. We are for better alternatives, not just hemp and cannabis, but just for better alternatives. You’ll see WAFBA go in that direction. We’re not just about hemp. We’re about better alternatives.