Ben Dronkers has for decades been one of the most prominent hemp activists and entrepreneurs in the Netherlands. So when we got the chance to interview him we were very excited! Read the full interview below:
Ben Dronkers: I was just 17 and I discovered it like most people; through some friends. The first joint that I smoked was in Rotterdam under a bridge and like many people I didn’t feel much of it. Nevertheless, I tried it again and then you feel the good vibes of it. There wasn’t a real big cannabis culture back in 1966. It started a bit in Amsterdam with a few clubs, the Paradiso for example and later on the Bulldog, Cosmos and a few other places, but not many. The first coffeeshop also came out a bit later. In Rotterdam there were no coffeeshops, those were mainly Amsterdam. So my friends and me, we would often go to Amsterdam to buy a piece of hash or weed and then we shared it when we came back to Rotterdam. We mostly bought hash back then because it was much better than the weed. The weed mainly came from Africa, Indonesia and Thailand. The hash came from Lebanon, Morocco, Afghanistan and other places, and was much better. Very good quality. In those days hash was more important than weed.
Ben Dronkers: That story actually started earlier because I started to travel the world a bit, you know, like hippies do, and discovered hash around the world. And because I was interested I also visited the farmers. When I saw the farmers grow their hash I also became interested in growing it myself. With a friend of mine in Rotterdam we started with just a few seeds to see what would happen. We had one plant under a heater and it worked! The quality wasn’t that good but it worked. For us it was a revelation, a wonder. In America you already had homegrown, but not in Europe. Not many people grew their own plants. For us it felt amazing that we could just put some seeds in the ground, give it water and grow your own weed. That made me travel the world more and I visited places like Lebanon and Morocco and later on I went many times to Pakistan and Afghanistan. From there I brought different varieties with me that I found along the way. I brought them back to Holland and together with a friend I started to grow them in a greenhouse. The police busted me quite a few times, also just for having some hash on me.
“then I realised that there was a loophole in the Dutch drug laws: It was legal to just grow seeds.”
Ben Dronkers: But then I realised that there was a loophole in the Dutch drug laws: It was legal to just grow seeds. I went to an expensive lawyer to ask if my thoughts were correct and he confirmed it to me. So then I started growing my own seeds and I started my own seed company: Sensi Seeds and around the same time I also started the Hash Marihuana and Hemp Museum together with Ed Rosenthal. We were the first legal seed bank/ seed shop in the world and got customers from all over the world. Nobody had done it before and people started to write about it, including the American magazine High Times that brought me in connection to many people, people and knowledge. All the specialists from all over the world, writers and researchers, came over because our seed collection was a very special one. The first weed that we grew in the Netherlands I tried to sell in Amsterdam but nobody wanted it because it was too green. They called it spinach. But in fact it was so good that in a couple of years everybody was fond of it. Because the seeds were legal I kept growing for the seeds not weed.
Some of the items on display in the Hash Marihuana & Hemp museum in Amsterdam.
Ben Dronkers: We started with the Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum a bit later than Sensi Seeds but around the same time period. We did it because, like you guys, we wanted to share the information about weed and hash to the tourists who came to Amsterdam for the coffeeshops. I had been collecting for quite some time by then, together with friends, but at first we also called it the Cannabis Info Museum back then. It was more about spreading information than having items on display. Whilst the museum was there, me and my friends kept on collecting items. Collecting is quite addictive if you like your collection. When you now see our collection in Amsterdam and the collection in our museum in Barcelona, it is amazing! I cannot believe it myself sometimes when I see it. Where did I get all that stuff? So in the beginning a lot of items were also from friends but with time I bought the items from them or gave them back.
Ben Dronkers: One of the most exiting moments for me was when I was in Afghanistan and it was still being occupied by the Soviet Union. We went into the mountains to find wild marihuana as I already had gotten the seeds from the farmers and was interested in getting wild strains. So we went into the mountains and we came over hilltop and then there was big Russian platoon right in front of us. And that was quite scary, as I had to dress like an Afghan because I couldn’t walk around looking like a tourist. It was a forbidden area for foreigners or strangers. That was really a bit scary because they started shooting at each other, a scary moment. But Afghanistan itself was also extraordinary with such a beautiful culture and people. It was amazing to see people walk around there with big bales made up out of super quality hash. And they were really friendly so they shared everything with you like the food, the house and of course the hash. It was, especially the people, very nice. I went there quite a few times and it was always nice.
“The Afghan people deserve so much better than the way they have it now.”
The Afghan people deserve so much better than the way they have it now. They have this beautiful hash if they could only export it on a fair trade deal. A farmer gets around 200 to 300 euros per kilo whilst in a coffeeshop in Amsterdam a kilo sells for around 16.000 euro per kilo (18,2279 in US dollars or 14,2622 in pound sterlings). The Afghan people should have the right to export that beautiful product that they have. The money could be used for good schools and good agricultural practices. It could help with the development of their country.
Ben Dronkers (in white) in Afghanistan. Picture source: cnnbs.nl
But at this time the drug prohibition appears to be coming to and end so I hope to see the day that it’s completely legalised and all these poor countries can have some financial benefit from it. But for us it’s the same thing. A lot of people smoke terrible stuff and there is no quality control. And it should be there like with any product that you buy in a grocery store. Normally weed and hash are actually quite safe but since the prohibition was implemented people started using insecticides and other bad production methods. Consumers should be protected and the product should have regular prices. What you see in Colorado, where it is legalised, the state government makes millions of dollars in tax revenue. That’s a good thing; it should be out of prohibition and legal.
Ben Dronkers together with Ed Rosenthal in a greenhouse filled with hemp. Picture source: weedworldmagazine.org
Ben Dronkers: The thing is the Netherlands is like an ostrich that puts its head in the sand. We had a big advantage in the Netherlands because it was semi-legal with the coffeeshops and the technological innovations for growing cannabis were quite high here. But they changed the law and made it more difficult to grow and more and more the organised crime took over production. And then the guys with “the green fingers”, the hippies, the young people who grew a couple of kilo’s in their attic, they all quit because they were too scared. The police also targeted them all the time instead of organised crime because that was a lot easier of course.
I think in a few years, when America completely legalises, the rest of the world will follow. I’m living in Malaysia right now and you can see medical marihuana in Thailand, Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia getting legalised. It all starts with that. Because all the lies throughout the years that marihuana is a bad thing are being refuted by the medicinal properties that it has like in a product such as CBD oil. They can’t stop it anymore. The cat is out of the bag, as they say.
Ben Dronkers: You can say the Dutch government but when you drink a beer or wine they are also regulated. If you buy some food there are also food regulations. Should it get legalised like other products that are legal then there should be no restrictions. Marihuana is pure most of the time, it’s a herb, it’s a plant. It’s the same with your vegetables; there shouldn’t be heavy insecticides on it. But that is also the beauty of this plant is that you don’t need those to grow it. While tobacco and alcohol give a lot of societal damage marihuana doesn’t which is now extensively proven. In the Netherlands they even came up with a report that it isn’t bad and then the government falsified the report to keep it illegal. Nobody got punished for that. But if you sell a few grams of marihuana on the streets you go to jail.
It’s really stupid that it’s legally accepted that people can drink themselves to death with alcohol and smoke themselves to death with tobacco whilst marihuana is illegal and nobody has died from it. It’s prejudiced and discriminatory against a plant. If a religion tells you what you should eat or drink that’s your religion. But if a government tells you what you can and cannot eat and drink then you still have the self-determination of your own body, it should be up to you. I believe all drugs should be legalised and then the world will change. Because now, when you say heroin should be legalised people get really upset, but would you like to have some heroin? You don’t. But it’s the peer pressure and black markets that make new junkies.
Some of the items on display in the Hash Marihuana & Hemp museum in Amsterdam.
Ben Dronkers: That is one of the companies that I started after Sensi Seeds and the museum. We grow a lot of hemp with that company in the Netherlands and Rumania. And with that hemp we make CBD oil, fibers and wool. This plant is very diverse in its use cases. They say that there are 20 to 50.000 different products you can make from hemp. You can buy the CBD oil from Sensi Seeds but you can also find the seed oil, hemp seeds and protein. It’s one of the plants that contains omega 3 and 6. On the other hand we can see that the textile industry is entering the market, albeit slowly. They currently use a lot of cotton and that crop needs the most insecticides of all the plants in the world and requires a lot of water too. Hemp is the exact opposite, an amazing product.
“At HempFlax we make car products for the automotive industry. BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar even the Bugatti Veyron.”
At HempFlax we make car products for the automotive industry. BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar even the Bugatti Veyron all have our hemp fibers inside the dashboard and door panels. That saves a lot of plastic; soon you’ll find plastic bags on the market that will be totally degradable instead of the plastics that we use now. That’s amazing! And those are some of the things that hemp can do. People should inform themselves if they are interested in this subject. We also have a small shop in the Red Light District between the two museum buildings called the Hempstory. There we sell a lot of products that you can eat or wear or use for makeup.
Industrial hemp production. Picture source: dvhn.nl
Ben Dronkers: It’s very simple actually; in the last couple of hundred years, in between 400 or 500, we cut 80% percent of the forests in the world. We’ve used up all that wood, but hemp can do the same as a forest but what takes a forest 12 years hemp can do in 1 year. It can produce fibers and it can produce wood. You can even produce ethanol from it so you can drive cars on it. In our museum you can already see a motorbike completely made from hemp. In 1941, Henry Ford made a car completely of hemp and you can find this information in the museum. And that is the fun of the museum because people simply don’t know about this plant. They always think it’s a terrible thing but it’s a friend of humankind.
Can hemp safe the planet? Well if the CO2 output is important then you can see that, what you learn is school, plants take in the CO2 from the air and store it and then when you burn it is released again. But what we do now is use millions of years old oil and coal and only burn it releasing the CO2 into the air. Hemp would take it in and release it again. But if you store the hemp like in the car industry, in wood or hempcrete (concrete made from hemp), a very interesting development at the moment, they are actually building houses from this.
Hempcrete replacing concrete. Picture source: isohemp.com
Then you store the CO2 for many years. It’s a wonder plant, it’s amazing what this plant can do. It comes close to the tree of life as I always say. And people don’t believe it, they don’t know about it. When they come to the museum they’re flabbergasted by all the possibilities that this plant has!
“Colombus couldn’t have found America and Europe wouldn’t have had any colonies if it wasn’t for Hemp.”
When you look back at history, Colombus couldn’t have found America and Europe wouldn’t have had any colonies if it wasn’t for hemp. Wood and hemp made all those ships possible. The sails were hemp, the clothes were hemp, the food was hemp, the lights were powered by hemp oil. Back in the day, we had around 3000 windmills in the Netherlands and most of them were used for hemp and hemp oil. These are some of the reasons for why we started with HempFlax even though we lost money with it for 24 years.
2 replicas of the 3 ships that Columbus used to sail to America. Picture source: oswegocountytoday.com
But now it’s there and we have a factory in Romania and you’re now talking about 3000 hectares of hemp so it’s a real industrial company. It came from nothing because after the First World War the cotton, plastic and alcohol industry took it all over. And look what we got with all the plastic in the oceans. Can it save the world? It can help a lot. That quote was actually originally a phrase from Jack Herer, a good friend of mine who passed away. He wrote a very important book: The Emperor Wears No Clothes. He used to say hemp could save the world and then I would always say; come on, that is a bit too much Jack. But I really believe it now because as soon as the oceans have no more fish where do we get the proteins? The omega 3’s and omega 6? It’s in the hemp oil or seeds.
So what could we use to power our cars? We could use ethanol from hemp. Building construction, aluminium, cement and all that stuff are real big pollutants. In the Netherlands they have a large program for housing durability and they make insulation for the homes from glass fibre or rock fibre and they even use PUR-foam, and it’s so toxic. I say, and I really believe it, that this glass fibre isolation is the new asbestos. But HempFlax produces good quality isolation made from hemp. We sell it and our sales are getting better. It’s more expensive of course and the industries that are involved and the government don’t like it so they keep it down. That is really happening. And if people think that is a conspiracy theory, trust me, I’ve been working with hemp for 27 years and it was never easy, it’s still not easy!
The Dutch parliament building. Picture source.
Ben Dronkers: Lies and deceptions, with the story that the United Nations wouldn’t allow it. That’s what we heard for the last 20 years. At one time we had 27 persons in Dutch parliament who smoked weed and they wanted to legalise it with D66 (Dutch social liberal party). But then they say we can’t do that because of international treaties. But that isn’t true, because in the meantime Colorado does it, Uruguay does it, Portugal does it, so many countries are doing it now. It was bullshit then and it’s bullshit now. And now in the Netherlands they want to try what they call “the weed experiment” and it’s bullshit again. It’s unbelievable what they make up; they will again start to say that it’s bad and that you will get sick. No, cannabis, marihuana and CBD oil cure people. It’s a medicine. You go to a doctor in the Netherlands and that doctor can prescribe it legally, you can get it at the pharmacy and you can travel the world with it legally. The treaty of medicine is signed so it’s officially a medicine. They are liars, because when you ask how about alcohol and tobacco? They say “oh no, no we won’t talk about it now”. So it’s hypocritical, lies and deceit.
Historical advertisement in the Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum.
Ben Dronkers: Well I don’t think just for the Netherlands but it should be totally legal for the whole world. You should be free to grow it in your own garden, to grow your own medicine and you use it. And a lot of people do this now in the Netherlands. You’ve got 1000’nds of people who grown their own weed when you look at a website like Mediwiet. I don’t know how many people are medical users but you have this stuff and it’s expensive but when you buy some seeds and grow your own it’s bloody cheap, a very cheap medicine! What you also see in Colorado for example, and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure this one out, is that alcohol consumption is going down. So the alcohol industry doesn’t like that, that they are really losing money. And with the pharmaceutical industry a lot of people use 7, 8, 10, 20 different kinds of tablets from the pharmacy, bloody expensive! It’s a milk-machine!
“alcohol consumption is going down. So the alcohol industry doesn’t like that, that they are really losing money.”
Ben Dronkers in the high grass. Picture source: cnnbs.nl
And now people are using cannabis or CBD oil or THC cannabis as a medicine and they don’t need all this pharmaceutical stuff anymore and that is why those industries are the big funders of the anti propaganda. And they probably bribe the politicians with lobbying and all that shit to keep it illegal. In America alone it is estimated that it will cost them 15 billion in sales a year. I’m not sure if that is for Colorado alone or all the states. But if a company loses that kind of money they don’t like it so they better pay a couple millions here and there to keep it illegal. But like I said, the cat is out of the big, they can’t keep it illegal anymore. In the last 45 years that I’ve been fighting against prohibition I met high standard people like Harvard University professor Lester Grinspoon, who wrote even back in 1972 that it was a medicine and not harmful. The real researchers and the government knew about it, nevertheless they kept it forbidden. But what I see now is that they cannot hide it anymore and that the prohibition is coming to an end. As I say sometimes, as a politician you have to be both very stupid and totally uniformed, or corrupt.
Ben Dronkers: It’s like you state it. It will be an industry. It already is. In Canada one of the biggest companies is Canopy and they work together with Corona beer. Corona put nearly 4 billion dollars into it. Coca Cola was even interested into cannabis drinks. You see it in the stock market; in both Canada in America you can buy stocks now that are totally cannabis related, for consumption and medical. In Switzerland you can already buy cannabis cigarettes in the super markets and at gas stations. They are low in THC, only 1 percent and a bit high in CBD, but it’s there, in the supermarkets. Even in bags of just weed, in some countries they sell it like tea, but you can still smoke it. But in Switzerland it’s just the weed. So it’s already happening but it will take time, everything takes time. However, Hemp is even more important to me than cannabis because I think it can save the world, at a minimum it can save a lot. The sooner we can change from a plastic and oil industry to a sustainable industry the better. And that with only one plant that doesn’t need insecticides or pesticides for industrial farming. There aren’t many plants that don’t need those.
The Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum in Barcelona. Picture source: everipedia.org
Ben Dronkers: Oh yes, there are also crooks in it of course, and some of them collected a lot of money but they don’t know what to do with it. Those people are more financial experts than agricultural experts or growing experts. But there are of course also plenty of good ones. I don’t know how many there are at this time, I hear a lot. But I don’t know, a lot of them will die and go away but some others will grow very fast. Figure it out yourself; if you want to buy some stocks you might want to buy some HempFlax stocks or Sensi Seeds. You never know the future of course but those two companies are both doing well and have a history of quality, and quality conquers all! At this time HempFlax is the largest CBD oil producer in Europe. And on the other hand, if you look at our museums, the museum in Barcelona is a masterpiece! But with everything in this business you have to wait and see how the politicians and the pharmaceutical industry try to stop it, don’t be surprised. I think they can’t anymore and should not, because this plant and medicine should be available for everybody.