JOINED AT THE HEMP

WEEDING BETWEEN THE LINES AT AMERICA'S FIRST-EVER CANNABIS COMMERCE CONVENTION

"Hempy Halloween," proclaims the sticker plastered on the door of a conference room at the Hermosa Inn. Above the slogan is the image of a jaunty jack-o'-lantern with a joint dangling from its mouth.

Elsewhere, a couple of children whose parents are attending the convention skateboard around the sidewalks of the Paradise Valley resort clad in oversize souvenir tee shirts promoting a "Cannabis Cup Award and Hemp Expo" to be held in Amsterdam.

And over by the pool, a self-described "crazy artist" from Los Angeles mesmerizes bystanders by pointing out subliminal marijuana leaves, seeds and other hemp imagery embedded in his stereoscopic paintings of counterculture icons like Bob Marley, Jim Morrison and Albert Einstein.

As I wandered through the unconventional convention held one weekend earlier this month, a couple of lines from a 1967 protest song by Buffalo Springfield reverberated through the baffled corridors of my mind, namely: "There's something happenin' here/What it is ain't exactly clear."

And when the first-ever conference of the hemp movement's answer to the American Cotton Council finally rolls to a close three days later, I'm still in serious need of mystic crystal revelations. "Baby, this is too big to go into over the phone," explains the group's excited point woman during a cryptic conversation earlier in the week. "What's going down this weekend is really historic. This is like no other industry that has ever happened in the history of the world!"

From what I'm able to gather, the event will bring together hemp enthusiasts who hope to convince the government to legalize the domestic cultivation of the plant. They'll be showing clothing and accessories from processed hemp fiber imported from China. And while my contact rattles on about how legalization of the plant will somehow save the planet and turn around the country's economy, I can't help thinking that this whole thing sounds like nothing more than a highly circuitous end run against marijuana laws.

"Like I said, this is too big for the phone," concludes the organizer. Then, before signing off, she reiterates the monumental significance of the event. "Believe me, this is going to be heavy! All the VIPs and the industry elite will be there!"

I can't help wondering just who some of these heavy hitters of the hemp world might be. A roach-clip tycoon? Cheech and Chong? The Zig Zag man?

When I arrive at the conference's hospitality villa, I find myself rubbing shoulders with the likes of a photographer from High Times magazine, the author of The Hemp Seed Cookbook and the producer of Hemp for Victory, a Los Angeles-based cable-access program that features interviews with people ranging from Willie Nelson to a self-avowed wood nymph. Making my way through this sea of graying ponytails, frizzy naturals and wire-rim glasses, I feel like I've slipped down a retro rabbit hole.

"Hey, we're just a bunch of old hippies, man!" This from conference coordinator Christie Bohling, the woman I'd spoken to on the phone. A counterculture hell-raiser from way back (the onetime marijuana smuggler opened the Valley's first head shop in 1967 and its first water-bed shop three years later), she currently wholesales hemp clothing out of a ranch located near the San Tan Mountains.

Bohling has kept the Sixties faith, if only in her head. Like many of her fellow travelers, she's a fountainhead of overheated rhetoric of how government-threatening the hemp conference is, and her speech is peppered with references to kinds of people and activities I haven't thought about in years.

"I got a call from some hippies up in California who'd heard about this thing," she reports. "They wanted to know if they could hitchhike down and camp in the hotel parking lot. Well, 'Uh-uh, baby, you don't pay, you don't play.' I told them security was going to be tight. If I need to, I'll bring in some bikers." Hitchhikers? Hippies? Bikers? Can the director's cut of Easy Rider be far behind?

Stepping outside to enjoy a forbidden cigarette--a Marlboro--the fiftysomething force of nature tosses back her mane of salt-and-pepper hair and lets out a lusty cackle worthy of the late Janis Joplin. "We're all outlaws, right, guys?" she hollers to a bunch of men who are poring over a schematic diagram for a hemp-harvesting machine developed in 1917. "We're here to turn on the world to hemp!"

The undisputed godfather of the hemp movement is Jack Herer, who has taken a hiatus from his hemp booth on Venice Beach to attend the conference. A paunchy, middle-aged guy partial to socially relevant tee shirts and baseball caps ("I Grew Hemp" reads the slogan on his George Washington hat), Herer got the ball rolling with his 1990 manifesto The Emperor Wears No Clothes.

In that book, he presented evidence suggesting that the reason the U.S. government outlawed hemp in 1937 had nothing to do with the dangers of smoking the plant at all. According to Herer, the Reefer Madness propaganda of the era was actually a smoke screen used to mask government/industrial collusion. He contends the government knuckled under to powerful publishing and manufacturing concerns (the names Hearst and Du Pont get quite a workout), which feared that new hemp-harvesting techniques would kill their lucrative forestry holdings.

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