It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to call 2018 the year of cannabis. From the availability of a wide array of new recreational marijuana products to sustainable hemp materials, the substance has become a star component in a host of goods across the globe. Currently legal for sale in a majority of North America, legal recreational cannabis is having its well-deserved day in the sun and enjoying the largest profits for the plant to date. One conservative estimate by consumer insights group BDS Analytics projects legal marijuana consumption worldwide to hit $32 billion by 2022.
There is a sticky point, though. As a steady cascade of profitable companies continue to grab headlines, cannabis is at the same time mired in a bewildering gray legal zone as a result of an outdated decision by the U.S. federal government. Though pot legalization continues to find acceptance with voters across America — with 32 legal states and counting, and even red states like Missouri and Utah demanding legal weed at midterm elections this year — the federal government has been fixed on their decision to keep cannabis listed as a Schedule 1 drug. Defined as a substance with “no medicinal value,” the Schedule 1 designation makes the plant illegal at the federal level, while simultaneously legal at the state level in those 32 states. That’s created a significant speed bump for some investors looking to enter the cannabis market — and it’s also created a conundrum for a lesser considered subset of cannabis devotees: philanthropists.
Last year, Forbes reported that several altruistic cannabis companies in the U.S. had their generous donations rejected by charities. You read that right — legal money given in a legal way to legal charities was sent back. Marijuana business Organa Brands say they were baffled by the instance when they discovered that their donations were rejected by Wounded Warriors and the American Cancer Society. “It felt like a slap in the face,” said Organa Brands President Chris Driessen. “Because the message was, essentially, you’re a drug dealer.” Ironically, both of those organizations support people who cannabis advocates also work tirelessly for, as cannabis has been shown to ease the symptoms of PTSD for war veterans and help with the discomfort of chemotherapy in cancer patients. More recently, MJBizDaily reported that marijuana retailer Hotbox Farms had their $25,000 donation to a youth water park in Oregon returned to them. Others who’d donated to the park said they didn’t like that Hotbox’s name would appear with theirs and threatened to pull out.
This legal gray zone in the U.S. has created a climate where many cannabis entrepreneurs considering charitable contributions, or those looking to create philanthropic businesses, would rather deal abroad than in America. The situation is having the knock-on effect of providing opportunities to improve people’s lives in poorer countries while at the same time providing entrepreneurs with savings in the form of lower operating costs.
David Woonteiler, founder of handcrafted hemp bag maker Core Hemp, says he created just such an arrangement in Nepal. After visiting the country on vacation a few years back and finding an immediate affinity for the country and its people, Woonteiler developed the notion to produce hemp goods using local hemp and labor. Feeling uneasy about wearing clothes from fast-fashion industries after watching the documentary True Cost, he says his uneasiness turned into reality when he witnessed the hardships endured by low-wage workers in Nepal.
“It was one thing to know on an intellectual level that it was wrong, but another to see dear friends that I made while traveling suffering to make a living wage,” says Woonteiler. With the increase in hemp-based products in the United States increasing, he says he took the opportunity to invest in a business that employed disadvantaged workers in Nepal, many of whom were women living in violent domestic situations. He now employs nine artisans and has also provided them with a group home for themselves and their children.
“It feels great putting in this time and effort to provide a sustainable way for these Nepali artisans to make a living for themselves and their families and at the same time creating a product that is eco-friendly,” he says.
Since working out some initial production issues, this year Core Hemp produced $100,000 worth of product and is on track to increase that number tenfold in 2019. Woonteiler hasn’t taken a penny from the business for himself and says he prefers to pump all proceeds back into the business and maintaining a sustainable work and living environment for his employees. Gita Raut, a Core Hemp employee living in Kathmandu, says her life and the lives of her coworkers have been positively altered by Woonteiler’s business. “Core Hemp gives us all jobs and helps us send our children to school,” says Raut. “It has helped a lot of women in this house.”
In a country like Nepal, with a large unemployed population and limited exportable resources, Woonteiler’s hemp business is making a substantial difference. It’s also providing buyers in the U.S. with a kind of craftsmanship of pure hemp goods that can only be found in the traditional methods used by artisans in the Himalayas for centuries.
Woonteiler’s mission to provide good, sustainable products made by Nepali artisans shows in Core Hemp’s line of attractive hemp rucksacks, mini-backpacks, and fanny packs. It also shows in the holistic way he views his business as a whole. “It is equally important for us to design the best handcrafted products as it is to create a safe and profitable work space for our Nepali friends,” he says.
Forbes, David Carpenter