Laid back is not how you would describe Ben Droz. When he picks up an interest, that interest becomes a passion — photography, trick skateboarding and, of all things, the benefits of industrial hemp.
While attending Goucher College in Baltimore, where he majored in sociology and anthropology and minored in cognitive science, Droz realized he better get moving if he was going to make an impact on the world.
Combining his early love for making necklaces out of hemp fiber and selling them at craft fairs with his urge to be involved in the climate change movement, the 28-year-old Squirrel Hill native began studying industrial hemp.
He wrote many of his college papers on the subject and then sent those papers along to any hemp-related organizations he could find in order to get a summer internship.
Vote Hemp in Washington, D.C., hired him as an intern in his junior year, and Droz has been working for the advocacy group ever since. He
currently is legislative liaison and spends his days lobbying Congress, detailing all the advantages of industrial hemp, which is extracted from the stem of the cannabis plant and used to make rope, fabric, the dashboards of cars, cosmetics and even milk.
Because industrial hemp is derived from the same plant as marijuana, under federal law it is a Schedule 1 drug, grouped with heroin. That is why Droz sometimes has been accused of working for Vote Hemp so he can get high. “I just say, ‘That’s a different issue. That’s a personal issue.’”
But the anti-hemp tide is turning. Twenty-four states now allow hemp production or research. Last year’s federal farm bill included an industrial hemp pilot program.
Even marijuana is experiencing a wave of support and is legal, mostly as medicine, in about one-fourth of the United States.
Still, in order for a farm to grow the hemp plant, permits most be obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Drug Enforcement Administration. That is often enough to discourage farmers, according to Droz.
“Hemp is healthy. Hemp is healthy for farmers. Hemp is healthy for jobs,” he said, repeating the message he works to get out. Hemp is the new and improved flax, he said.
His enthusiasm for hemp is all-consuming. He carries a briefcase made from bio composite materials including hemp. Hemp socks, shirts and ties populate his wardrobe. “I always have something on” that is made from hemp. “It’s breathable and comfortable” and doesn’t need to be washed as often, he said.
Droz views hemp “as a very concrete way” to help the environment, reduce the need for pesticides and herbicides and increase sustainability.
Young people no longer dream of buying a house. They want to follow their passion while working to improve the world, according to Droz. And when it comes to the environment, there is no time to wait, he said.
“I am not even worried about my kids. I am worried about me,” said Droz.
Droz equates his passion for hemp to his grandfather’s passion for Judaism and tikkun olam. While attending West Point, Jesse Cohen, the former chairman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh who died in in 2012, successfully fought for a place for Jews to worship there.
Droz’s passion does not come with a large paycheck, so he takes on as many photographing jobs as possible, including weddings and b’nai mitzvah, which leaves little free time for hobbies. His skateboarding days, while not totally over, have been curtailed. “It was really hard on my body. I was feeling old. My back hurt. My knees hurt.”
That just leaves more time to spread the word that hemp is “super healthy, a premium product in its early stages.”
Suzanne Pollak is a senior writer for Washington Jewish Week. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.