AFTON, Vir. — PRO TIP: When a federal lawmaker casually informs you he’s growing three acres of cannabis and then asks you to hop on his doorless off-road vehicle — even in the midst of a raging pandemic — don’t hesitate; just hop on. Once on board the deceptively fast (and did I mention utterly doorless?) adult toy and they then subtly inform you, “it’s like a roller coaster, by the way,” you nonchalantly move your recorder to the same hand as your notebook, hold on to any slippery plastic or cold metal you can grip, and hope the lawmaker can’t see your pale knuckles.
“When you see it, you’re gonna freak out,” Rep. Denver Riggleman tells me of his plot of hemp plants.
Today’s his last day as a congressman, after he lost a drive-thru GOP convention this summer that witnessed a mere 2,537 primary votes cast (by comparison, his opponent, and now congressman-elect Bob Good of Liberty University, netted 210,988 mostly Republican votes in November’s general election). But he’s okay with that.
“I think I’m the first, probably, modern day congressman growing hemp”Rep. Denver Riggleman
It’s hard — or maybe foolish — to think about politics for extended periods when you live in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which Riggleman exemplifies as he whips past small and large trees alike on his family’s 50-acres, located about 20 minutes west of Charlottesville.
“This is pretty cool,” Riggleman gushes to The News Station about his first experiment with growing cannabis.
The black four-wheeler is now unforgivingly bouncing over downed branches, muddy potholes and whatever else it wants, as the congressman laughs while treating bends as if they’re straightaways, missing tree trunks and errant branches by inches.
He may be leaving Congress after a mere two-year stint, but he’s pretty sure he made history in his single term.
“I think I’m the first, probably, modern day congressman growing hemp,” Riggleman humbly brags about the three acres of only recently legalized psychoactive plants (contrary to popular opinion, CBD has psychoactive properties, though it’s cousin, marijuana, surely contains many more) that drink from the perpetually meditative river the family home looks out over.
Riggleman’s in his element here — in this suit, tie, and bullshit-free zone. On his property, he kind of reminds me of my eight-year-old nephew on his birthday: Brimming with genuine excitement, as he guides me through a rapid, one-directional round of Show and Tell.
“I’ll show you the bottom field where the hemp is being grown. You have time to hang around?” Riggleman asks (even if he already knows that, like my life when he’s racing, my itinerary is in his hands).
“Yup,” I reply.
Whatever my itinerary consisted of as the sun was peaking over these hazy mountains, it’s now just one item: Touring a congressman’s cannabis operation.
First, I get the liquid tour. Their property is also home to the family’s main distillery, Silverback. They own another distillery about an hour southeast of Wilkes-Barre, Pa. This new year they plan to break ground on a third about two hours south, in Lancaster, Pa. The distilleries are where his three grown daughters and his wife of more than 30 years, Christine, make award-winning bourbons (she’s in the ABV Network’s Bourbon Hall of Fame), gins (she was named one of the best gin distillers in America in 2014), and vodkas.
They turned the distilleries into impromptu hand-sanitizer factories for first responders, children’s hospitals, dentists, scientists, and the public when coronavirus struck last spring. Flipping from making whiskey to making medical grade sanitizer likely cost them $1.2 to $1.6 million, the congressman estimates, but the family made the decision together. They had to launch a Go Fund Me initially because the coronavirus lockdown squeezed all small businesses alike, and they only charged for about 10 percent of the sanitizer.
Riggleman shows me the warehouse filled with slowly aging whiskey. It’s expansive. An open and inviting field surrounds the simple structure, and he can’t help but tell me this is the spot where two of his daughters were married.
It seems every inch of this land has a special, previously private memory to Riggleman, but once your feet touch his soil you get the royal treatment and that means his tales.
He’s once again kid-like as he tells me of their four-legged neighbors out here in the country. That includes five or so black bears who live on or near this sprawling property. One of their dogs learned the power of those bears after he chased one up a tree, only to have the bear give up on the tree and go after the pup, piercing one of its floppy ears.
“I heard some, you know, yappin and yappin and crashing, and I ran back to the house, got our .357 and got the four wheeler. I’m like, ‘My God, I think it’s gonna kill my dog,’” Riggleman recounts. “He didn’t kill our dog, but yeah, it’s real around here sometimes.”
We bounce up and down as the congressman hits the gas — the only speed he seems to know in this thing is fast — and he’s eager to show off the rich Virginia soil that’s a natural fit for his new hemp operation (just as that soil’s fed tobacco, and even hemp, plants for centuries now). The giddiness gets the best of this newly minted hemp farmer, and he makes a cannabis-dad-joke.
“Oh man, we’re gonna have some messed up deer,” Riggleman quips of Bambi munching on his field of green.
“Heck no, there’s nothing in there,” he says, likely remembering I’m a journalist.
He occasionally uses CBD for its “calming” properties, but the field is an experiment. Congress only legalized hemp in 2018, and it’s now a multi-billion dollar industry. But it’s new, and the federal government — like state and local ones — have delayed regulations on it (even as millions of Americans consume it daily) while also not extending certain programs available to other businesses to this new breed of hemp and CBD-entrepreneurs.
After growing some of their own grains for their distillery (they’re too big of an operation to grow all their own ingredients), Riggleman was curious about hemp and signed up to be a guinea pig. And it made sense. His cannabis field is on a flat patch of land next to the river, nestled between two natural, literally bubbling springs. This nutrient rich soil is made for this kind of crop, or so Riggleman convinced himself (and his wife).
“We have so much tobacco infrastructure, why don’t we leverage that for hemp?” Riggleman says.
And he wanted to see the regulations — or the lack thereof — firsthand, so he could help the commonwealth’s farmers by walking in their boots. Hence, he became a cannabis congressman, in part cause he’s curious and has lots of energy.
“Being an agribusiness, let’s do it, right? Just see all the issues that farmers got to deal with. What you gotta do with regulations, right? All that stuff,” Riggleman says. “I better know what the hell I’m doing. It’s a lotta work. It’s a lot of work.”
He did have the help of a rotating crew of more than 15 workers from Old Virginia Hemp who he granted access to his land for, he thinks, like $1.00. They cleared thick brush, felled some trees, while also leaving others standing to keep a more natural habitat in place for local “critters.” Then they planted, tended, and harvested pounds and pounds and pounds of green plants that were illegal just a couple years ago.
The libertarian streaks run strong in this one, hence today at noon this ultra-conservative Republican congressman will be replaced by an ultra-ultra-ultra-conservative Republican congressman. Riggleman offended far-right wing Virginia Republicans — who are more motivated, active and cunning than the sizable number of merely conservative Republicans here — when he officiated the marriage of two young conservative, Republican men who volunteered for his campaign.
That got him smeared, then censured, and eventually booted from office by Republican activists after spending two years racking up a conservative voting record in Washington.
“Now I have no handcuffs. The worst thing they could have done is release me into the wild”Rep. Denver Riggleman
Riggleman doesn’t seem to have any quit in him though. The former Air Force officer planned massive bombing campaigns after 9-11 and then did a stint with the NSA, but in a past-past life he proved himself scrappy, in more ways than one.
While on a limited ROTC scholarship at the University of Virginia, some days he’d install patio and storm doors, and then some nights he worked as a bouncer for a Charlottesville bar and at his dad’s place — Denver’s Bar and Grille — over the border in Petersburg, West Virginia (“I ended up graduating with distinction,” he wants you to know).
He says he learned a lot about today’s Republican Party from those sticky, sometimes blood-splattered floors. He estimates breaking up some 30 or 40 scrapes and a couple “mob scenes,” but two separate incidents stand out most to this day.
“I knocked two individuals unconscious. One, I ran his head into a car bumper. The other one I piledrived him into a parking lot after he hit a female,” Riggleman says matter-of-factly. “When I had a gun pulled on me, my wife said, ‘You know what, I think we’re good. We have two kids and one on the way. Maybe being a bouncer there’s not the best way to do things.’”
He likens today’s Republican Party — the party of President Donald Trump (who endorsed Riggleman over his opponent) — to the drunk kids he used to bounce for $150 a night.
“It came to the point that I couldn’t deal with the crazy anymore, because it was taking me down to their level. That’s what’s happening right now is that we honestly don’t have enough bouncers for Congress, and I’m talking about intellectual bouncers,” Riggleman says. “And now you’re seeing a class that I think could be the most extreme class of incoming freshmen ever elected to the United States Congress.”
The 50-year-old has witnessed a lot over the years, and that’s why he says the GOP is best likened to desperate druggies, especially now that a number of elected Republicans are preparing to contest the results of the presidential election without any evidence supporting them (at least according to the numerous judges who have dismissed the slew of Hail Mary lawsuits brought by the Trump campaign).
“They’re mainlining that. That’s just like mainlining drugs, because if you don’t get your fix from Twitter or Facebook, you get your fix from Gab, you get your fix from Parler, [etc.],” Riggleman tells The News Station. “You can go anywhere that validates your beliefs. You can do confirmation bias on steroids all day long. You can radicalize yourself, because you’re afraid to face facts.”
The soon-to-be former-Congressman is now seen as a turncoat by many Republicans, but he’s unfazed. His Democratic opponent in 2018 and Saturday Night Live accused him of writing Bigfoot erotica, which he not only dismissed in a self-deprecating way but then turned into the book Bigfoot …. It’s Complicated. It’s now #84 on Amazons Love, Sex & Marriage Humor Best Seller list.
When life gives Riggleman lemons, he seems to grab vodka to mix in it.
“Maybe I can do the first ever hemp vodka or something?”Rep. Denver Riggleman
Even though he was booted from Congress by members of his own party, he’s not laying down his gloves. He’s now an adviser to the Network Contagion Research Institute, which studies and tracks extremism — from QAnon to Antifa, and seemingly everything in between — in this hyper-digital age.
“Our job is to rip apart the foundations of fantastical belief on the fringes of both parties,” Riggleman says.
He says he plans to work even harder at doing that than he worked as a congressman — — and he worked many 16-hour days as a representative in Washington.
“You know, it’s like the difference between somebody who is inserted with the Taliban, right? Or who was an informant for an enemy combatant, right? Or somebody like me who bombed them from the outside with 2,000 pound JDAMS,” Riggleman says. “Now I can use my experience and I can come after you, and now I have no handcuffs. The worst thing they could have done is release me into the wild.”
Worse yet, they riled him up before releasing him.
“I have some financial freedom, right? But also the fact is that I hate bullies. It’s that simple,” Riggleman says. “I’d rather be poor and, you know, trying to make a life with a tent back here in the trees, rather than kowtow to a bunch of people who make their money off misinformation and trying to fix things.”
Even though many establishment Republicans now seem more fixated on maintaining power — by any means necessary — Riggleman predicts they’d be happier if they remembered the GOP’s liberty loving roots. He’s even leading by example.
“Maybe I can do the first ever hemp vodka or something?” Riggleman says. “This is really cool what they’re doing. You know, I gotta put my money where my mouth is, right?”