When most people think of Cannabis, they think of a plant that, when used in various ways, produces psychoactive properties. Hemp (agricultural industrial hemp), is a plant within the Cannabis family grown for commercial industrial uses, such as textiles, paper, health food, health supplements, and many other value-added consumer goods—while containing less than 0.03 percent THC—the cannabinoid component known to produce what some would call a “high.”
Douglas Flight, owner of Winkin’ Sun Hemp™ Company, which opened last month in Wheeling (WV), has set out to change perceptions on Cannabis, and add to the groundswell that surrounds a potential cash crop and new economic driver for West Virginia.
Winkin’ Sun will now be the first hemp products-based retail store in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle, and the third store to open a hemp-themed physical location this year in the Mountain State (the other two reside in Parkersburg and Charleston). The shop will sell clothing made of hemp, t-Shirts, hemp hats, hemp-based beauty products, hemp paper, hemp backpacks, hemp nutritional foods, hemp seed oil, and hemp-derived CBD oil.
(A natural daily health supplement known to be of great benefit to those with fibromyalgia, schizophrenia, Crohn’s disease, MS, PTSD, insomnia, depression, anxiety, and even cancer, CBD, like THC, is a cannabinoid native to Cannabis plants, but without the psychoactive effects. The U.S. government actually has a patent (US 6630507 B1) designating CBD as an antioxidant and neuro-protectant in the treatment of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and HIV dementia.)
Flight is not only the first retailer of hemp products in the Northern Panhandle, he was one of the few people to grow hemp in that area last year under the research guidelines of the (U.S.) Farm Bill—working as a satellite site for the WVU Hemp cultivar analysis research project. In 2017, the West Virginia legislature passed HB2453, expanding commercialization of hemp farming and the selling of hemp-based products.
“Basically, I transitioned out of a twenty-year career in sales, marketing, and retail merchandising,” he said in a recent interview. “Back in 2011, I started thinking that I should get more involved in agriculture in West Virginia. I connected with an organization here in Wheeling called Grow Ohio Valley—which is an agriculturally oriented non-profit with farms and CSAs, greenhouses, raised beds, and more.”
Flight’s start with Grow Ohio Valley found him marketing hemp products for their farmers’ markets back in 2011, and then moved to building things like greenhouses, and even farming.
“My intention from the beginning was to be able grow hemp here in West Virginia, but they wouldn’t release the registration until 2016. So, last year I applied and grew—in conjunction with WVU and the Department of Agriculture—and also completed some research with them. I didn’t grow this year, but I will next year.”
Flight had always planned on doing a storefront, part of a triple-plan attack: vendor events, brick and mortar, and online sales. “I’m involved with a lot of local businesses and artisans and craftsmen here in the Northern Panhandle—who have storefronts,” he explained. “I was also consigning products into a lot of stores, already. In the modern economy, you absolutely need both a web presence and a brick-and-mortar presence in order to survive.”
Testing the Threshold
Industrial hemp has a rich and prominent place in U.S. History. In 1938, hemp was named by Popular Science magazine as “The Next Billion-Dollar Crop” because of the nearly 25,000 products that could be derived from the plant. Today, the U.S. imports more hemp than any other country in the world—from countries like Canada and China. The total retail value of hemp products sold in the U.S. in 2015 was about $573 million.
But it often gets directly associated with marijuana—even as (medicinal Cannabis) enjoys its own, independent, evolution.
“Medicinal cannabis is a different beast,” assured Flight. “Agricultural/industrial hemp has been more accepted in my experience over the last several years. People try to turn the conversation to medicinal cannabis; I try to separate the two—though I’m an advocate of any and all usage of the plant, especially when it comes to someone suffering from an ailment. Medicinal Cannabis became legal in West Virginia earlier this year, though it won’t go into effect until June 2019.”
Agricultural hemp was put into law in West Virginia in 2002, at a 1.0 percent THC threshold. However, the state Department of Agriculture didn’t act on that until last year (2016)—in terms of releasing an application and licensing criteria. “So, we’re in our second Ag year growing hemp, and with 2018 right around the corner, people are already registered to grow next year,” said Flight.
If anyone should be excited about the Mountain State’s stance on industrial hemp, it would be Flight. “It’s pretty much all systems go at this point with hemp, as long as you apply and get approved as a licensed grower,” he noted. “My opinion is: a lot of the data is being accumulated—basically letting the little guys do the grows, learning from it. At some point, larger farming interests will probably jump on board—and maybe monopolize it, like so often happens in America. But the Ag Department, by law, is allowing us to grow it—per the Farm Bill. They mandate that you get the seeds through them; they come and inspect your site.
“Once you have a license, you’re able to grow, and then they will return later in the season, prior to harvest, and take samples, testing the THC level to make sure it’s at the proper threshold.”
In West Virginia, the legal THC threshold is 1.0 percent, but on the federal level, it’s 0.03 percent—which means if a farmer is within the state, he/she has a threshold of up to 1 percent THC, but they can’t do any commerce outside of the state. They have to be at 0.03 percent, and even the state has the option to drop it to that level—so really, everyone is shooting for that mark.
As far as farmers, or future entrepreneurs, across West Virginia transitioning to industrial hemp and ushering in a new era of desperately needed economic prosperity for the state?
“It all depends on the ability to process the crop,” emphasized Flight, “and what your intentions are: grain, seed, animal feed, hempcrete, CBD? We obviously need much more investment interest in this state—but there’s potential for paper, bio-composite plastics, seed oil, and grain—and a lot of that is basically being built from the ground up going into year three. But absolutely, it has enormous potential to resurrect the economy in this state as a commodity crop. Hopefully West Virginia doesn’t wait around and end up last.”
As far as the future of Winkin’ Sun is concerned, Flight has plans to expand and grow his business, and certainly doesn’t rule out a possible storefront in the Eastern Panhandle.