Monday, May 23, 2022

Why are two Norfolk businessmen stoked about hemp? (Hint: Not to get high)

Hempseed oil is protein rich and full of heart-healthy nutrients, like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. But as two Norfolk entrepreneurs know, it also has a bit of an image problem. (Photo courtesy Alpha Hemp Industries)

Two guys in Norfolk want to be your hemp dealer. But they want to make you healthy, not get you stoned.

Norfolk-based Alpha Hemp Industries launched its website earlier this month with one product: hempseed oil.

Green in color, hempseed oil is rich in protein and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. According to recipes on Alpha Hemp’s website, you can add it to salad dressings, salsas and even pancakes. Sold by the bottle like olive oil, prices range from $5.50 for 100 milliliters to $472.95 for 20 liters.

“I think that we’re really hitting it at a great time,” said CEO Austin Burns, 22, a finance student at Old Dominion University.

With hempseed oil available online from sellers such as Walmart and the Vitamin Shoppe, he might have a point.

Harshing the buzz

And yet. At least in Hampton Roads, hemp has an image problem.

“There’s still basically a stigma,” said co-founder Conrad Mendoza. “Awareness is still not there.”

Burns has seen it, too. Some potential customers, including military personnel, think hempseed oil might make them fail a drug test.

“And then I have to explain it doesn’t get you high,” Burns said.

So as business plans go, it’s complicated.

For starters, hemp is not marijuana. Both come from the cannabis plant. Marijuana is from the leaves, buds and flowers. Hemp is from the seeds and stalks.

Though hemp and marijuana come from the cannabis plant, hemp seeds such as these have only a trace of THC, the substance that causes a high. (Courtesy Alpha Hemp Industries)

Unlike marijuana, though, hemp only has trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, which causes a high. Under federal law, marijuana and THC are a schedule 1 controlled substance. Hemp products, such as rope, oil and clothing, can be imported legally. Alpha Hemp sources its hempseed oil in Canada, according to Burns.

In Virginia, it’s illegal to possess or cultivate industrial hemp-plant material or seeds unless you have a grower’s license and you’re cultivating industrial hemp as part of an industrial hemp-research program, according to the website for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Also, there’s another complexity. Hemp could be good for you.

A 2010 study by Canadian researchers found dietary hemp seed had the potential to benefit patients with heart disease. A separate study published in 2014 found hemp-seed meal protein could help prevent and treat hypertension.

Turning a corner

For both of Alpha Hemp’s founders, hempseed oil isn’t just business. It’s personal.

Conrad Mendoza (left) and Austin Burns (right) hope their imported hempseed oil will find an audience among health-conscious Southsiders. (Courtesy Austin Burns)

When Burns was 18, he got a criminal record in Northern Virginia for misdemeanor marijuana possession and misdemeanor distribution.

“As a younger person I made some bad decisions,” he said.

He’s also active in NORML, which seeks to reform marijuana policies, and Decriminalize Norfolk, which seeks to educate the community about marijuana decriminalization, according to its Facebook page.

“I really do believe in second chances,” Burns said.

Mendoza, a 1996 ODU graduate, connected to hempseed oil for health reasons.

A self-described “gym rat,” he was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease about six years ago. As a result, he was taking medications and dealing with chronic pain.

“You can imagine I was like super bummed out,” he said.

Now he’s stoked.

“As we turn the corner on the stigma of hemp, I really just want to be on the forefront,” Mendoza said. “I only do things that I like to do. So I mean hemp is just there with me.”

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