With Hip Hemp Cafe, South Philly’s George Martorano cleans up by sticking close to roots

Put aside all you might know about South Philadelphia native George Martorano.

Forget that he’s the longest-serving, first-time, non-violent offender in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Forget that he was given life in prison without parole in 1988 and released in October 2015.

Forget that the bust involved, among other drugs, literal tons of marijuana. Since all of that, Martorano has blazed a new trail and has instead become the kingpin of something legal, non-intoxicating, but just as heady: CBD and a burgeoning empire based out of his recently-opened Hip Hemp Café.

Here, Martorano is free to run an enterprise that will soon include the branding of health-benefiting hemp items labeled with his image (from pre-rolls to CBD-infused wine), as well as creating events such as Atlantic City’s first CBD-hemp festival this September and participating in 4/20’s Sunflower Hill hemp happening in Kensington.

“I don’t want to forget, and I’m not running from my past,” said Martorano, dressed in an expensive blazer and well-appointed pocket square. Marijuana was his past. Cannabidiol, or CBD,  a compound accounting for 40 percent of the extract from the cannabis plant, is his present and looking more and more like a lucrative future.

“We can’t call it medicine, but this hemp is a source of healing, long outlawed for all the wrong reasons,” said the Café’s baker and advocate Cynthia Carroll. “George is here to take that back, rebrand and personalize it.”

Martorano’s café will market items like “Mugshot” hemp face crème and a “Cowboy” CBD strain for freerolls. “It’s going to be named after me as a present example for prisoners who come home to not return with a chip on their shoulder,” he said. “I’m taking the cowboy thing – a name the prosecutor gave me when busting me in Houston – a negative thing, and making it positive to lead by example. I’m even going to contact the prosecutor who is retired now, thank him, and see if he has any charities he’d like to see me donate to as a philosophical example.”

An entire book could be filled with Martorano’s experiences during and after his prison stay. Well, more than one, since he’s already penned 31 books, with four currently available on Amazon. He’s recorded YouTube monologues discussing the “Fourth World” of the prison system. He also speaks methodically about his outlook on many prison reform measures to local and national legislatures.

His attempts to make non-violent inmates feel like human beings could fill newspaper features on human justice and the great lengths to which the system incarcerates those who don’t deserve it. “And some do deserve prison, I can tell you that,” said Martorano, informed by the innate knowledge of having experienced the system the hard way.

A world away from that life, Martorano sits in his intimate Hip Hemp Café off South Street, a Martorano family-owned establishment featuring a courtyard where plants will be sold. It also features a bootlegger’s well, one which his father, Raymond “Long John” Martorano, used in his glory days with the mob.

 Along with high-quality and organic tinctures, pre-rolls, creams and oils (all of which Martorano uses daily), there is hemp coffee to be served, CBD lollipops to be licked and tasty CBD cakes and muffins to be consumed, baked daily by Carroll.

“This is all very calming, herbal, and organic,” she said. “You have to understand as much about the properties of flour and sugar as you do CBD infusion.”

When not preparing THC-free French vanilla coconut cakes (50 mg CBD) or cinnamon buns (“Cannabons,” 50mg CBD), and working on her next project with Martorano — a full time CBD bakery/kitchen at Juniper and South — Carroll discusses the benefits to her own health that CBD brings while tending to those in need by easing ailments with Hip Hemp Café’s products.

“I have a medical marijuana card, but cannot smoke THC cannabis without mixing CBD in it, because there’s too much of a psychotropic effect otherwise,” Carroll said.

Many methods of CBD consumption are available, including tinctures, oils and pre-rolls. These can aid in pain management, offer calming properties, help reduce anxiety, increase focus and energy, as well as uplift a user’s state of mind.

Lisa Preuninger of Carefarmacy.com, organizer of 4/20’s Sunflower Hill event, is a constant visitor to the Hip Hemp Café. She understands first-hand what CBD and THC can do for the body ever since her husband was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident. The couple made cannabis a part of their healing regimen.

“I got involved in the cannabis industry under California’s PROP 215 and our lives and well-being changed,” Preuninger said.  “I came back to Philly to preach the gospel that we have more control over our body’s health than we are led to believe and that, in part, comes down to CBD, and not big pharma. That’s when I found the Hip Hemp Café. Hemp and cannabis are those things that help you connect with what your body needs to heal itself—the whole point of the endocannabinoid system.”

 Martorano, Carroll and Preuninger will bring a taste of the café to Sunflower Hill with samples of hemp flower, a bud that looks and smells like marijuana. Their joint hope (no pun intended) is to remove hemp’s stigma, something President Trump’s recently-signed Farm Bill, which removes CBD from the controlled substances lists and reclassifies hemp and its derivatives as an agricultural commodity, should do in the future.

Martorano began his journey in CBD when he was in prison. “Marijuana was a death sentence for me, so I sought to find the positive,” he said. Once out of prison and while lecturing at events dedicated to reform, he met the mothers and wives of prisoners who started their own “sometimes substantial” businesses of creating homemade CBD-infused products to help their sick child or parent.  

“Some would cure their rheumatism with a regimen of CBD and THC,” he said. “Sometimes [they] saved their children with CBD alone. I heard stories of lupus patients, cancer patients, Parkinson’s patients all getting a chance to feel better. Looking into these mothers’ eyes… that got me.”

Martorano claims he’s looking to find ways to aid the plight of sick children and adults with limited means, whose need for vape oils can run $1,000 a month, to have an easier time with affordability. “No one should walk away remaining sick when we can help them,” he said.

As a convicted felon, Martorano is prohibited from selling medical marijuana in this state. If his Hip Hemp Café partners ever decide to go that route — if and when recreational marijuana gets legalized in Pennsylvania — Martarano must step away. Yet, he is currently moving products through the Hip Hemp Café (and soon, he says, a close to a dozen along the East Coast), infused with a legal cannabis derivative that will soon have his face on nearly every product.

 “Branding is the wave of the future when it comes to all this,” he said, pointing around the café’s back room. “Willie Nelson and Tommy Chong have their rolls. Snoop Dogg, Martha Stewart, Olivia Newton-John will be entering the marketplace soon with tinctures and such. But they and the consumer have to get into this for all the right reasons. I’m never putting my face on an inferior product for the money. Neither my products or the Hip Hemp Café is about money, and trust me, I’ve had offers and opportunity. It’s about healing. CBD is a mindset. If you don’t understand it and accept it mentally, your body will reject it physically.”

 George Martorano and his crew want the healing journey to begin at Hip Hemp Café.


  • A.D. Amarosi's Headshot

    A.D. Amorosi is an award-winning journalist who, along with working for the Philadelphia Weekly, writes regularly for Variety, Jazz Times, Flood and Wax Poetics, and hosts and co-produces his own SoundCloud-charting radio show, Theater in the Round for Pacifica National Public Radio station WPPM 106.5 FM and WPPM.org.

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