Let’s be clear: the root problem we are trying to solve is ending the prohibition of cannabis, which only exists because of structural racism. Everyone who survived 2020 hopefully has a better understanding of how police enforcement of marijuana crimes directly contributes to the marginalization of Black communities.

But knowing it isn’t enough. Now we need to do something about it. And that means legalizing cannabis at the federal, state, and local levels. And even though the vast majority of Americans support legalization, it won’t be easy in a narrowly divided Congress dealing with a mountain of other priorities.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Higdon, co-founder and chief communications officer for Cornbread Hemp.

Jim Higdon made his first impact in 2012 with the publication of his book, “The Cornbread Mafia,” a nonfiction account of how his Kentucky hometown became the headquarters of the largest domestic marijuana syndicate in American history. After the book’s success, Higdon became a nationally recognized journalist, covering cannabis policy for POLITICO and Kentucky news for the Washington Post. In 2018, he left journalism to co-found Cornbread Hemp with his cousin, Eric Zipperle. Together, they have built one of the best hemp brands in America by offering CBD products made from sun-grown Kentucky hemp that are USDA organic, flower-only extracted, and verified full spectrum.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thanks for having me. I was a successful cannabis journalist, but I wanted to do more. So I took the lessons from my “Cornbread Mafia” reporting and put them into action by co-founding Cornbread Hemp. We knew from the start that our passion for Kentucky-grown cannabis would help us find our niche. We got there with our USDA organic, full spectrum CBD oils made from flower-only extraction. That’s how we found our early success at Cornbread Hemp — by making superior products from better ingredients.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

My goal in writing “The Cornbread Mafia” was to share with white American audiences the damage caused by War on Drugs upon a community that looks like them. For decades, the Drug War has targeted Black communities in unfair ways, but white Americans have largely convinced themselves that the problems of over-enforcement didn’t concern them.

By telling the story of 70 white men from Kentucky who were arrested on 30 farms in 10 states with 200 tons of marijuana in the late 1980’s, the book is able to convince certain readers who might not have understood this otherwise, that drug laws against marijuana are bad.

The sad reality is that most people who live in suburban and rural communities just don’t understand how the Drug War stacks the deck against minority communities. The social impact of “Cornbread Mafia” has been to open a new line of dialogue with these sorts of Americans about the pressing need to legalize cannabis.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

The real eye-popper from “Cornbread Mafia” is the story about a drug bust that happened in rural Minnesota in October 1987, when local police captured 20 Kentucky men on a farm with an estimated 90 tons of marijuana. Ninety tons? Yes, 90 tons — or at least that’s what the police said.

How did police get 90 tons? They weighed one dump truck load of marijuana, then multiplied that number by 62, which was the number of dump truck loads they took off the farm. But so much marijuana remained, they decided to burn the rest on-site. So, they took the times-62 total and doubled it, which gave them 90 tons.

That’s when federal authorities realized that something was happening in Kentucky that required their attention, which led to the eventual round-up of 70 men as part of the alleged “Cornbread Mafia.”

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

One of my last pieces of journalism before co-founding Cornbread Hemp was a piece on how the 2018 Farm Bill was about to legalize hemp, but not for anyone with a drug felony on their record — because a lifetime felon ban had been slipped in at the last minute. I went to a hemp facility in western Kentucky that was run by a California company because the CEO of that company was a felon. But he was OK because his crime wasn’t drug-related; he was a Medicare fraud felon. Therefore, the lifetime felon ban didn’t apply to him.

After writing this story for POLITICO, the final draft of the Farm Bill had the drug-crime felon ban reduced to 10 years. It’s difficult to know for sure if my journalism had anything to do with the reduction of the felon ban, but the timing of my story could very well have impacted this important piece of federal policy.

It was in the course of reporting this story that I realized that no CBD brand was embracing the full history of Kentucky cannabis in a way that accurately represented this superior product. That’s when the “aha!” lightbulb went off in my head. I had this vast knowledge of Kentucky cannabis wrapped up in the Cornbread story. That’s when I joined forces with my cousin, Eric Zipperle, who the MBA and e-commerce experience necessary to bring the Cornbread Hemp vision into reality.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

As a young writer, I was obsessed with William Faulkner because nothing sums up the feeling of being a Kentuckian living in Brooklyn like trying to explain Faulkner to a New Yorker. As a business co-founder, I have been blown away by Traction by Gino Wickman because he understands the dynamics of starting a business at our stage of growth. He’s not writing over our heads — he is laying the foundation for how to grow a small team into a successful organization. And it’s working!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

In our first year of business, we were trying to raise money the old-fashioned way, by sending slide decks to accredited investors as part of a Regulation D fundraise. On a call with a potential investor, she asked us why we had left out the cap table in the slide deck. We apologized and told her that we would get a cap table in the next draft, no problem. After the call, we looked at each other and asked, “What’s a cap table?” Neither of us had any idea. We soon learned that a cap table a simple list that shows who owns how much of a company. We didn’t get an investment from that investor, but our rookie mistake turned out fine in the end.

A few months later, we decided to change course and do a crowdfund on Wefunder. This was early 2020. And then, the COVID lockdown crashed the stock market. People thought we were crazy to push ahead with our crowdfund plans, but we launched our Wefunder campaign on April 1, 2020 — and we blew it out of the water.

We raised over $50,000 on the first day, and over $100,000 in 17 days. We eventually capped the raise at $400,000 in just over six months. And the best part is that Wefunder helped us keep our cap table clean for future investment rounds. We have almost 900 investors from our crowdfund campaign, but thanks to Wefunder, all those investors get rolled up into one line on the cap table. We went from not knowing what a cap table was, to engineering a successful crowdfund that didn’t mess up our cap table for future investment rounds.

Let’s shift a bit to talk about your business. Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

There are so many CBD brands that it’s difficult to break the through noise. Editors tell me “no” all the time because they just don’t have time to review another CBD brand. So it’s difficult to get traction without genuine break-through moments. That why we work to build relationships with people with a voice and an audience.

For instance, we developed a relationship with Nichole Perkins — she’s a Black poet and podcaster from Tennessee who lives in Brooklyn. She’s been buying our CBD cream for her mother. In early October 2020, she tweeted that her mother asked for more “marijuana lotion” for “the arthur” in her hands, and she tagged us, @cornbreadhemp. We got a lot of orders from that one tweet, which is great, but that’s not where this story ends.

One of Perkins’s followers who placed an order based on her tweet came from C.C. Boyce, a woodworker in Los Angeles. About a week later, a writer from New York Magazine contacted Boyce to ask about recommendations for a gift guide for woodworkers, and Boyce recommended our CBD lotion. That’s how we made our first appearance in New York Magazine — genuine referrals from real people. In a media landscape dominated by paid placements, there’s no substitute for the real thing.

Can you describe how your business is making a significant social impact?

At Cornbread Hemp, we define ourselves as a cannabis company that operates on the legal hemp side of federal law. That’s why all our products are full spectrum, which means they contain a legal amount of THC. The legal THC threshold is currently at an arbitrarily low limit of 0.3 percent. We will constantly advocate to increasing the THC limit on legal hemp because we believe every American should have safe access to legal cannabis. That includes CBD and THC.

That’s not the typical position of most hemp companies, especially in here Kentucky. There are hemp companies here that actively opposed further cannabis legislation. That’s not us. Cornbread Hemp is a legal cannabis company based in one of the 15 states without medical marijuana. That makes Cornbread Hemp an agent of change in a state that needs this kind of leadership.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Let’s be clear: the root problem we are trying to solve is ending the prohibition of cannabis, which only exists because of structural racism. Everyone who survived 2020 hopefully has a better understanding of how police enforcement of marijuana crimes directly contributes to the marginalization of Black communities.

But knowing it isn’t enough. Now we need to do something about it. And that means legalizing cannabis at the federal, state, and local levels. And even though the vast majority of Americans support legalization, it won’t be easy in a narrowly divided Congress dealing with a mountain of other priorities.

Our job now is to continue to press our political leaders to remind them that cannabis legalization is a priority, even as we all remain focused on getting a COVID vaccine.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Captain America at the climax of Avengers: Endgame. He’s beaten up. His shield is broken, but he gets on his feet to face Thanos one last time. He’s certain that he’ll be defeated but he refuses to quit. Only then does his protege, Falcon, appear on his left — followed by the entire cast of heroes that stand by Captain America’s side.

The lesson I take from that scene is the importance of doing the work, keeping your head down and plowing ahead against difficult odds. Because even when it feels like you’re all alone, you’re not. People see the work and will come to respect it, even help with it.

That’s where natural leadership comes from. Leadership isn’t telling other people what to do; leadership is inspiring people to join your cause because they see your commitment.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

This one is really easy: I would use my influence to legalize cannabis — in Kentucky, in the United States, and globally.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’d like to have lunch with former Pres. Barack Obama to discuss the unfinished business of ending the cannabis prohibition. I’d ask him why he didn’t legalize cannabis during his administration, and I would ask his opinion on how best to engage on this issue for maximum effect. Now that he is free from the burdens of holding office, I’d like his insights on how we move forward.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Your readers can follow us at @cornbreadhemp on Instagram and Twitter, and I’m @jimhigdon there, too. And visit our website at CornbreadHemp.com.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Authors: Why & How Author Jim Higdon Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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