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Ben Dronkers: “Cannabis is for the people and everyone should be able to grow it”

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Ben Dronkers at the ICBC in Berlin. Photo: Laura Ramos | cannareporter

The world's biggest cannabis seed collector has been arrested so many times he's lost count. Ben Dronkers, 73 years old, was born in Rotterdam, Holland, and built the largest cannabis seed bank in the world: Sensi Seeds. Rebellious since childhood, Ben started smoking cannabis and liked it so much that he wanted to know how to grow it. His curiosity and passion for the plant would eventually lead him to discover the health benefits of ancestral cultures and the importance of preserving seeds and different genetics. 

In 1963, Ben Dronkers joined the merchant marine, at Holland America Lines, which would give him the possibility to visit many different countries, at a time when everything was very different and, above all, inaccessible. He began by collecting genetics from Asia, India and the Middle East, while also looking for clothing made from hemp. 

Ben Dronkers in Afghanistan in the 70s. Photo: DR

Philanthropist and founder of the Museum of Hemp, Hashish and Marijuana, not forgetting several other companies linked to hemp, such as HempFlax, Ben Dronkers is today an unavoidable figure in the world of cannabis. He currently lives in Malaysia, but is keeping an eye on the international legalization scene. Bluntly, he says that politicians are “corrupt and stupid” and that politics in Europe is like “spaghetti”.  

We met him at the ICBC – International Cannabis Business Conference – in Berlin and got to know this simple, friendly genius, not at all self-centered, altruistic and with a heart the size of the empire he created. He offered us the book “Weed of Wonder”, a bible of treasures and rarities from the museum and the history of cannabis, and confided to us that he is thinking of spending his holidays in Portugal, where he “unfortunately” has only been once.

Ben, you are a myth, a true cannabis pioneer…
Yes, but I was helped by many people. (laughter)

I imagine so, but you started a whole story with cannabis seeds and genetics and it's been quite a long journey. Would you like to sum up your life a bit so far?
First of all, I was a smoker. I like cannabis. So I thought “Where do they get it? How do they do it?”. I was curious and went to the countries where they grow them, even before collecting the seeds. And then I realized that seeds are number one on the scale of importance, because a friend and I tried to make them home in Holland. No one has done this. So we tried it and it worked. The weed wasn't very good for smoking, but the passion was there, watching the plant grow and flourish, so we kept going. I already traveled to Pakistan, India and those places, but I started to do it more often and to bring the seeds back. I collected seeds from all over the world and when we grew them it was a good thing. And then I learned to cross genetics. That's how it all started.

How was that initial adventure, when cannabis was still completely illegal?
I was arrested many times, maybe 80, of which 16 I was actually in prison. I forget how many times in prison, but it was almost always a short time… I was lucky! It was then that I discovered the law that says seeds should be legal. I went to a lawyer and said, "Hey, I think seeds should be legal because they're exempt under Article 3..." And he said, "I think you're right!" So I started growing legal seeds, because I went to the police, I went to the agricultural department and I said, "I'm going to grow hemp seeds." And they just laughed and said "But nobody does that". And I started and did it, totally cool. So, I started selling my seeds in Amsterdam, in a small store company – Sensi Seeds, which is still there, and it was a success. People came from all over the world, especially from America, because in America they liked to cultivate, but the genetics were not there. Then Sensi Seeds became famous and we got along really, really well. But I was also interested in the story. And with famous people like Jack Herer, Ed Rosenthal, many, many people in the scientific field, David Watson, Robert Clark... were happening. 

When I started, I was the devil, the drug dealer who wanted to get everybody high and addicted.

And where you would later found the first Museum of Hemp, Hashish and Marijuana…
With the museum and the seeds we made a lot of money and our passion is with the plant. In the history of the museum, hemp was a very important product. I invested all my money in hemp for 27 years, but we lost money on hemp. Now we are doing well and we have beautiful materials like insulation. That's amazing, because this insulation is not just about keeping the cold out, but more about keeping the heat out. Therefore, for hot countries, this insulation is even better than in Europe, but in Europe it works in the same way as fiberglass and stone wool. And those are terrible things, because fiberglass is pollution. The energy needed to transform it is also immense, so people should invest in hemp insulation, which is great. You can have a baby lying there and you don't do that with fiberglass or rock fiber. I try to expand as much as possible with hemp and it's doing well, but we still need more customers buying hemp. Is it very difficult to break into the market or is it always about our group – “Dronkers are cannabis”… At this fair here (ICBC Berlin) it's all about business. It's not about growing a plant, it's about growing money. So, I don't feel very comfortable here, but… there's also the future, we need the industry. Since I started, until now, it has become a beautiful industry and the development is amazing. Many people find jobs and work with cannabis. For me, it's the most important thing, as long as cannabis is for people, because it's a social and cultural possession. This plant belongs to all of us, not just big companies. Monsanto or anyone else that says “This is my plant now”. No! Cannabis is for people and everyone should be able to grow it, smoking, whatever, there has to be freedom in cannabis. This is more or less my scene. And we're almost there... not yet, but... I believed we were almost there 40 years ago or so, but... (laughs)

We are already closer than when it started, in the 70s.
Yes, seventy-something.

In addition to Sensi Seeds and the Museum, you also collect cannabis-related rarities.
I also had friends come to Amsterdam who exchanged information and every week there was something new about cannabis. And now there's still something new every week, if you look around here, the technology and innovation of things is tremendous. And the development in the medical sector, in hemp and everything else, soon the whole world will know about it. Some people are still skeptical “Oh, cannabis…”, but soon everyone will turn around and say: “Hey, this plant is humanity's friend, not an enemy. ” And I always said that.

Although you started working in this area many years ago and are one of the most experienced people with cannabis, do you think you still have a lot to learn from this plant?
Oh, the learning never ends! And, with this plant, it's just the beginning, I think. Medically, when I started with hemp – the first hemp company in Holland and Europe for a long period of time, there were only a few friend companies making biblical paper, hemp paper and very little, but now we are the biggest producer of CBD from Holland. We produce hemp for the automotive industry, even for Elon Musk's Tesla, and that's also very interesting.

Car components?
Yes. And we've been doing this for a long time for Mercedes, BMW and even Bugatti, who received fibers from us for their cars. And it's not just 100kg, there's already been a car made completely out of hemp, like Henry Ford did in 1928, so there's no question about it. If we have to stop cutting down trees and using fossil fuel, there is only one sustainable plant that can solve many of these problems. We make plastic from hemp, wood, houses, cement, insulation, food, superfoods with omega 3 and 6, fuel. Soon there won't be so much food and hemp is a super food, no insecticides, no pesticides.

I think the world needs more rebels, especially in high society.

What do you think is preventing hemp from being used more universally?
Well, it's not like growing cannabis. If you place it in your garden or in your room with good light and give it water, you grow cannabis. Hemp is a real industrial thing, you know? So that makes it difficult for everyone. Many people want to start and I often say “don't do it, because it's a long way and you need a lot of money”. And we put Sensi Seeds money into it all the time, but otherwise it would be next to impossible. And now look, in America, there are already big companies. They started and they need to learn, they still need to learn. But it's coming, it has to be industrial.

Ben started with Sensi Seeds, but now you have many companies, mainly hemp.
Well, we have many companies. We have Hempflax, of course, ThermoHanf in isolation… we researched, we have over a thousand varieties, so that's a lot of work and it costs a lot of money to maintain them. We have the museums, of course, Barcelona, ​​Amsterdam. And what else? Lots of companies I guess. (laughter)

It's the Dronkers Group.
They call it “Dronkers Group” now and I still have to get used to it. I don't like it, to be honest. 

Why?
It's not about me! It's about cannabis, you know? (laughs) It's not me. It's the plant.

I see that you are altruistic and not at all self-centered, because you started this interview right away saying “I didn't do it alone”, but the truth is that, if it weren't for you, none of this would exist. So certainly you played an important role.
When I was a kid I was a real rebel and they didn't want me in the classroom, I was always outside. So I'm a rebel and I'll stay that way. I like that. AND I think the world needs more rebels, especially in high society now: bank directors, politicians, they need to get a little more rebellious, especially with cannabis, but I think that will come soon.

How do you see the future of Europe in terms of legalization?
In Holland, we have a government, Germany has a government, Portugal has a government … we are all Europeans, but our governments have nothing to say. Brussels is the boss now. People don't know that. So if there's anything going to happen to cannabis, it has to come from Brussels. The law even writes about ornamental plants, also about hemp, which should not be legal. So we are fighting them. We are in the middle of a legal fight and I hope we win. We must win. And I think they already know that, because the governments are trying to find a way to do this and Holland does it this way, Portugal does it this way… Portugal does it very well, I think very well. Germany is terrible, even the seeds are dope here. This is crazy. Therefore, all countries have their laws, but the European Commission must legalize them. And I think, especially after Thailand, where everything is now totally legal, "the cat's out of the bag" as we say, you know? They can't put it back in the bag. And today all the innovation or big companies and stock markets in America, Canada, is billions madness. They are raising millions and millions in taxes. Colorado has less crime, less shootings, less everything...

Less consumption of cannabis and alcohol…
Especially alcohol, too. Crime is dormant, taxes are coming in and they are using them to fund schools and hospitals. Isn't this beautiful?

It's amazing. So if you were in the government and you could decide, what would be the ideal scenario?
Well I I don't think it's ideal to be a politician because they're all corrupt or dumb. What is that? Are they dumb or corrupt? They are dumb. No, they know. They know it's absurd to keep cannabis illegal. They themselves smoked when they were young and now they say it's terrible. They are corrupt. I don't think anything else... I just gave you a book - Weed of Wonder - and I gave it to all the politicians in Holland, in Brussels... I offered more than two thousand books and we had a reaction from a very small Christian party and a few journalists. Nobody! Then why? What is that? That's a system that's not an accident, because for whatever we did, journalists never came. In my museum in Amsterdam, in 30 years, there's been a journalist or two, if not counting the cannabis journalists, you know? From the rest, nothing and still happens the same. So, I don't know... something is wrong here.

I'm not addicted. I like to smoke. I don't know anyone addicted to cannabis.

What do you think happens? Is it lack of interest? Is it stigma? What will it be?
I once told journalists – there were about ten journalists in the room and I was one of the speakers – that you are not allowed to write anything about cannabis and later on a journalist came from a famous newspaper in the Netherlands and said: “Yes , Ben, you are right. We can write about cannabis if it's not good. If we write a positive thing, they don't publish it”. That's boycott, that's censorship, right?

Right! And have you seen any changes since you started?
When I started, I was the devil, the drug dealer who wanted to get everybody high and addicted. Well, they were right about one thing: I really wanted everyone to get high! Then we would have a better world, without war, you know?

But they wouldn't get addicted! (laughter)
No! (laughs) I'm not addicted. I like to smoke. I don't know anyone addicted to cannabis. They are used to it, like people who are used to drinking a beer. You just drink a beer every now and then, nobody dies from cannabis. Nobody! But many people die from tobacco or alcohol and even the shitty food they eat in franchises of hamburgers and all the rest… supermarkets are full of shit, they all allow cancer, even now it's causing cancer, but “just a little bit is fine, right?” And cannabis is not dangerous at all, there is nothing wrong with it.

With regard to hemp, the European Union, for example, now has a specific page for hemp, where it states that it is a sustainable crop. The UN said we should be using more hemp, because it will help save the planet…
Where did you see that?

Well, the European Commission has published a specific page about hemp.
I did not see it. Can you send it to me?

Sure, I'll send it to you right away, don't worry. How do you see the hemp industry in the near future? Do you think it will really happen? Because in Portugal, for example, there is still a lot of prejudice, even about hemp, which was previously allowed. Before, certified European seeds could be cultivated and now they have published a law prohibiting flowers, only seeds and fiber can be produced.
Yes, as I said in my speech, politicians in Europe are like “spaghetti”. Here in Germany the seeds are dope. There is no THC. There's nothing in them, but they say they're dope. And in Luxembourg they say “no, we should make it legal”. The Netherlands is saying “we experiment with coffee-shops so they no longer need to buy seeds illegally”. You see, Europe is like “spaghetti”.

And what do you know about Portugal?
I loved when Portugal changed the law and everything became much better there. I love that.

The decriminalization?
Yes. That for me was really amazing and, to my shame, I've never been to Portugal. Oh yes, just once, for a football match. Someone invited me. I'm not really a football maniac.

In Lisbon?
In Porto, I think… I spent two days there and I loved it, but I would like to go back. I'm planning a vacation, actually.

Let's work then to take you to Portugal!
I would, yes.

OK, deal! Thank you very much, Ben.
You're welcome.

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