Das Hemp-Kapital 

A look at the seminal figures behind Amsterdam's thriving marijuana businesses

I'd like to start by thanking my Higher Ground co-host, friend and colleague Larry Gabriel for his fine column on hemp farming last week. As it happens, I'm staying this week at a splendid guest apartment above the Hash Marihuana and Hemp Museum in Amsterdam's Green Row on the Achterburgwal Canal as the guest of Sensi Seeds and its progenitor, Ben Dronkers, who's also responsible for establishing the booming hemp industry in the Netherlands.

Ben's a very sweet cat and what they used to call a "mild and unassuming" character — someone who probably wouldn't want to hear me sing his praises too loudly — but he was a leader in the Rotterdam branch of the original movement that succeeded in eliminating criminalization as a public approach to marijuana use in Holland in the early 1970s.

Ben Dronkers established the Sensi Coffeeshop in Rotterdam as one of the first public cannabis outlets, then starting in 1985 built Sensi Seeds as a major developer and distributor of top-grade marijuana seeds for the burgeoning growing industry in Holland. He opened Sensi Seed Bank in Amsterdam and founded the Hash Marihuana and Hemp Museum next door as a means of educating the public about the wonders of hemp and its products, both smokable and industrial.

In 1993, Ben began his intensive venture into hemp production and product development with a company called HempFlex. He developed and manufactured specialized hemp harvesting machinery and started growing hemp in a big way — now covering about 6,000 acres — to supply hemp fiber to major manufacturers such as BMW, market hemp products like HempFlax animal bedding, and harness oils and other agricultural products.

Dronkers started the industrial hemp revolution in the Netherlands, and geared his entire operation from growing to distribution toward maximum ecological and social benefit. At the same time, he's continued to grow the Sensi Seed Bank as one of the primary sources of first-quality seeds for growers all over the world.

I met Ben on my first visit to Amsterdam when I was honored as the High Priest of the Cannabis Cup in 1998. In fact, I smoked my first joint in a coffeeshop at the Sensi outlet in Rotterdam on my initial visit to Holland earlier that year, and in the early 2000s spent a lot of time hanging out with all the characters at the late, lamented Sensi Museum Coffeeshop on the Damstraat.

The more I learned about Ben Dronkers, the more I liked him. He created important pioneering businesses based on his principles and his love for cannabis, helped open up a vast new industry for cannabis entrepreneurs, and made a lot of money himself. At the same time, he paid close attention to the civic component and devoted considerable resources to furthering the cause of cultivation, hemp production and the mental health of the marijuana smoking population through the establishment of the Hash Marihuana and Hemp Museum.

The museum has grown into a significant institution and has recently taken on the support and administration of the Cannabis College, a storefront academy next door to the museum that boasts Holland's only legal cannabis growing operation in its basement.

The Sensi empire is well-integrated and arrayed along the Achterburgwal, ranging from the Sensi Seed Shop (formerly the Museum Coffeeshop) at the Damstraat corner and, going up the canal, the Sensi Seed Bank, the museum, and the Cannabis College. Across the canal, they're also currently ensconced in the Flying Dutchman building, following the retirement of its former owner, himself the major patron of the Cannabis College for most of its existence.

These are my kind of people. Like so many Dutch citizens, they didn't change with the times when the '70s rolled over into the dreaded Reagan era and the rising right-wing culture. They remained engaged with the social process and made serious changes in their social order.

And, in terms of our central concern with this column, they established the individual's right to smoke marijuana, in sickness and in health, in one's home or at the coffeeshop of one's choosing, and the ancillary right to purchase, over the counter, enough marijuana or hashish to get high on and stay high on as long as one may like.

For 80 percent of the Dutch population, this means nothing, but for the 20 percent here who are smokers, it's the next thing to living in a world of one's own design. Not only does this system take perfect care of the toker, but it provides work opportunities in the cannabis industry for thousands of adults of all ages, from growers and harvesters and distributors to coffeeshop employees, trimmers, tenders, professional joint rollers and bicycle stash delivery persons.

And that's before you get to the hemp industry pioneered by Ben Dronkers and his people. It's big business now, generating employment and income and tax revenues on a large scale by producing hemp fibers for industry and hemp products for the marketplace. Yet it retains a strong sense of social responsibility and dedicates significant proceeds to educational and public information activities — like placing ads for the Hemp Museum and its teachings on the electronic informational devices adorning the public transportation.

Over the years, I've spent quite a bit of time with Ben Dronkers and his sons Alan and Ravi, and now I'm a guest in the apartment above the museum they keep for visiting dignitaries. Through Ravi I met my current partners in crime, Sidney Daniels and Joeri Pfeiffer, who sponsor and maintain my websites, created and registered with the state the John Sinclair Foundation to support my projects, developed a brand of John Sinclair seeds to create revenue for the foundation, and underwrite and support my Radio Free Amsterdam Internet radio project, which is also manifested in the Motor City by means of Detroit Life Radio (detroitlife313.com).

Sidney went to work with his friend Ravi Dronkers in the Sensi Seeds operation in 1996, and teamed up with Joeri after opening up a stand called the Hempshopper to vend hemp products in the Nieuwmarkt. Over the years, they opened two Hempshoppers in the Centruum and developed a close relationship with a hemp products manufacturer and distributor in Germany as a major customer. Recently, they assumed ownership of his company, Hemperium, and are developing a line of hemp consumer products from lollipops and essential oils to clothing items.

Not only do I benefit from their enterprise and social commitment, but it's rewarding to see a new generation of citizens in their 20s and 30s take the up old-school principles that have guided me for so long and made Holland such a distinctive place in the 21st century.

In light of Mayor Dave Bing's recent call for new ideas to revitalize business and employment in the D, it would make perfect sense for the city of Detroit to take the next step forward and commit to the municipal growing of hemp as a potentially massive income source for the city, using its vast acreage of vacant land, abandoned factories, schools and police stations to grow marijuana for distribution and sale to the medical marijuana community of patients, caregivers and — potentially — dispensaries.

I'll take up this topic later, but Larry Gabriel really rang my bell when he quoted former state Rep. LaMar Lemmons Jr. saying, "Hemp farming can create thousands of jobs ... [and] with the large amount of vacant land in Detroit, we could do some of the agriculture right here." Amen, brother, amen.

—Amsterdam, Feb. 10-11, 2011

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