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Michael Bowman (third from right upfront) meets with Willie Nelson as he holds his historic hemp flag after a Nelson performance in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Michael Bowman (third from right upfront) meets with Willie Nelson as he holds his historic hemp flag after a Nelson performance in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Photo courtesy of Michael Bowman

How a Hemp Flag From Denver Made U.S. History on July 4

It's been six years since Colorado native Michael Bowman pulled off a monumental coup for hemp on the Fourth of July. With the help of Jared Polis — a Colorado congressman at the time — Bowman briefly raised a Denver-made American flag above the United States Capitol Building on July 4, 2013.

That flag was made from hemp fibers, which were federally illegal at the time. Six years later, hemp is now federally legal thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill, and Bowman has co-founded his own publicly held hemp venture.

But for Bowman, it all goes back to that historic moment in 2013.

“This, my friends, is what the beginning of the end looked like. We were winning the war,” he says. Still, it wasn’t easy to get his hands on a hemp flag; in fact, he had to rely on some quick work from his Colorado friends to get the job done.

At the time, Bowman was in Washington, D.C., lobbying for hemp and supporting then-U.S. Representative Polis with hemp policy reform. While he watched Polis debate a colleague over a hemp amendment one day inside the Capitol, Bowman spotted a flag flying overhead. Inspiration struck: Aware of a rule that allows members of Congress to request that flags be flown briefly over the Capitol building and returned to their owner, Bowman mentioned the idea to Polis. Polis was in, and Bowman was on the hook for a hemp-made American flag on quick order. So the man known among friends and industry peers as “Mr. Hemp” got busy creating one.

He first enlisted Adam Dunn, a Denver resident and founder of the hemp-based clothing company Hemp Hoodlamb; Dunn purchased the fiber in Manitou Springs and brought it to his showroom in Denver. Sheldon Reid of the Graffitee Factory screen-printing company imprinted the stars and stripes, and Dunn’s mother finished the job with her sewing skills.

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Colorado hemp lobbyist Samantha Walsh, an influential figure in Colorado hemp legislation then and now, shipped the flag overnight to Bowman — just in time for Polis to hold it on the House floor as he advocated in favor of an amendment allowing institutions of higher education and state agricultural departments to produce hemp for academic research. Polis's amendment passed on June 20, 2013, making history as the first federal hemp legislation passed in eighty years.

A few weeks later, Polis asked that the Colorado-made hemp flag be flown over the Capitol, and it was raised (fittingly) on the Fourth of July. Not everyone was thrilled with the moment, though. Michele Leonhart, head administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration at the time, reportedly categorized the incident as the lowest day of her 33 years at the DEA while speaking to a sheriff’s group the following January.

Polis had a different outlook. "George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp. The first American flag was made of hemp," he said at the time. "The U.S. Department of Agriculture produced a Hemp for Victory video in 1942. And today, I am proud that an American flag made of hemp will fly over our Capitol on the anniversary of our nation's birth."

Despite Leonhart's objections, the writing was on the wall for hemp. In December 2018, it was no longer lumped in with marijuana as part of the Controlled Substances Act after the passage of the Farm Bill, a piece of agricultural legislation allowing all fifty states to farm and sell hemp. Although hemp is the same species as the marijuana plant, which is rich in intoxicating THC, hemp is grown to have 0.3 percent THC or less, and doesn't get users high.

With hemp finally federally legalized, the industry is exploding, predicted to be worth well over $20 billion by 2025. Colorado is poised as a national leader in the new trade, leading the nation in farming acreage devoted to hemp in 2017 and 2018 combined, according to farming organization Vote Hemp. And the future has never looked brighter to Bowman.

“We have gone from having to sneak a flag over the Capitol building," he notes, and "72 months later, we are the number-one state in hemp.”

Bowman, a fifth-generation Colorado farmer who planted his first hemp crop in 2014, is excited about the opportunities that hemp can provide to struggling small and mid-sized farmers and dying farm communities. He was recently invited to sit on two state committees as part of Governor Polis's Colorado Hemp Advancement and Management Plan (CHAMP) to ensure Colorado’s position as a leader in the hemp industry.

His new company, First Crop, recently brought in $2.5 million during a round of public funding, but Bowman believes businesses like his could also help reinvigorate Colorado’s rural communities and save failing farms. "The small- to medium-sized farms, the ones that are really struggling right now, we think there is a real opportunity for them in the CBD oil space,” he says.

But Bowman thinks that hemp has far more potential than just the CBD market. “Hemp is not a one-trick pony; this plant has so much diversity,” he adds, pointing to hemp’s potential in the fiber, feed, seed and fuel markets. He even believes that when grown under sustainable farming methods, hemp could positively affect climate change, sucking CO2 out of the air, absorbing toxic metals and reducing pollution exposure.

These are thrilling times for Bowman, who has been advocating tirelessly on behalf of the plant for nearly twenty years. “Hemp is one of the oldest crops. We can trace this crop back 12,000 years. The last eighty years are an anomaly,” he says. “There have been a lot of people even five, six years ago who said, 'You’re never going to get this. It’s never going to happen.'”

Since that now-famous Fourth of July in 2013, Bowman’s hemp flag has been utilized as a symbol of activism, touring the nation via Denver native Rick Trojan’s “Hemp Road Trip” and educating the public about the benefits of the hemp plant.

So as we celebrate our nation’s independence, let's celebrate hemp's newfound freedom, as well. After all, founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew hemp, Betsy Ross’s first American flag is rumored to have been sewn on hemp, and the first drafts of the Declaration of Independence itself were likely written on hemp paper.

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