JOINED AT THE HEMP

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

During the weekend, I would hear about "Jack's book" so often that I wonder if the real future of hemp isn't in publishing books about the cause.

Another hemp-world mover and shaker is less interested in conspiracy than in profit.

"One of the things we're trying to get across is that hemp isn't just for hippies anymore," stresses activist Chris Conrad, a hemp renaissance man whose extensive credits range from founding the Family Council on Drug Awareness to acting as curator of Amsterdam's Hash Info Museum. Conrad also played a character named "Johnny Marijuanaseed" on an episode of the PBS series The Nineties.

"We don't believe that our future as an industry lies in a specialty market aimed at marijuana users. The hemp movement isn't really about smoking marijuana at all."

Conrad and his associates will have a hard time convincing anyone of that after the person's taken a gander at some of the promotional literature and ads floating around the conference. One outfit does business as the Mile High Hemp Company; another calls itself Stonewear. Head Trips, a California company that sells hemp hats, uses as its logo a nude hippie with a marijuana leaf over her pubic region. And to make ends meet, more than a few hemp merchants also traffic in incredibly tacky head-shop schlock.

The publishers of the Whole Hemp Catalog ("a group of Hip Hempsters from the Hills of OHighO"), for instance, also offer customers an array of pro-pot tee shirts and bumper stickers ("The Only Urine Test They'll Get From Me Is a Taste Test!"), as well as a line of Druggs Bunny greeting cards. Conrad and company may even have a hard time convincing the godfather of the hemp movement. When I stop at a West Camelback Road head shop looking for "Jack's book," the bored-looking young clerk matter-of-factly reports, "Oh, yeah--the guy who wrote that thing was just in here."

Pressed for details, she reveals that she had to ask the hemp honcho to leave the shop because he persisted in using drug-oriented lingo. "Everything we sell here is for tobacco use only," she explains unconvincingly, gesturing toward a showcase filled with bongs, hookahs, pipes and rolling papers.

Over the weekend, I'm exposed to many fascinating (if slightly water-under-the-bong) factoids about hemp's past. I learn that the Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper. That Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel using paint made from hemp-seed oil. And that during World War II, George Bush escaped from a burning airplane using a parachute made of hemp. Last year, hemp proselytizer Chris Conrad outlined a typical day-in-the-life-of-tomorrow in the introductory chapter of his book Hemp: Lifeline to the Future. As envisioned by Conrad, it's a world in which John Q. Hemp awakens to a wonderland of "cozy, hempen bedsheets," "soft, warm hemp robes" and "thick and absorbent" hemp towels.

"Over breakfast you can't help but notice how good the eggs are," writes Conrad. "Whatever they're feeding those chickens sure makes them tasty."

Mr. Hemp's entire day continues in this euphoric vein ("Don't come home too late," reminds his doting wife. "You don't want the hemp nutloaf to dry out.") right up to bedtime, when the happy-but-tired narrator notices the sexy music and "incenselike fragrance" wafting out of his boudoir. Concludes Conrad, "This, you tell yourself, is how life is meant to be."

Yet for all their idealism and enthusiasm, the captains of the budding hemp industry don't even seem to have a firm handle on the actual breadth and depth of their present entrepreneurial universe. Although the term "multimillion-dollar industry" and the figure "$50 million" are tossed about freely all weekend, there seems to be little consensus about how that number was arrived at or what it even means. By applying a little elementary math, it's easy to see that the optimistic $50 million figure almost certainly has nothing to do with annual sales. While the Hempstead Company, a Southern California sporting-wear firm generally regarded as the industry leader, expects to do about $1 million in business this year, most of the 40-plus companies in the hemp association will generate a fraction of that income.

Another factor in the mystery surrounding hemp sales volume is undoubtedly the, ahem, grassroots nature of the business and the lingering us-versus-them mindsets of many who toil in it. Quizzed about her company's sales, one chatty hemp dealer who works out of her home suddenly clams up. "Let's just say we've got more business than we can handle," she says enigmatically.

Requesting anonymity, another vendor confesses, "When I applied for my [sales] tax license, they asked for my social security number. That's the first time I've put my social security number out there in over 20 years!"

Judging from several meetings held over the course of the weekend, the hempsters' transition from underground economy to mainstream corporate America will not be easy.

In one confab I attended, eight people sat around wrestling with such issues as who should be allowed to join the trade organization. Does the guy who makes seed-filled hemp hacky sacks out of his garage qualify as a real player in the industry? (Yes.) Does the hippie who carries a sign through a rally deserve "activist" membership? (No.) Then, venturing into the realm of we-should-have-such-problems, the discussion bogs down with a convoluted--and, for now, pointless--debate on the amount of dues that a company like Esprit should be forced to pony up in the highly unlikely event that a major manufacturer would ever attempt to join the hemp organization. "Ninety percent of the people here this weekend have lived like paupers at some point during the last three or four years to help make hemp a daily household word," volunteers Christie Bohling. "So it's okay if the guy who comes in next week pays a little more in dues than you have. See, you guys have already paid your dues, man."

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