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.

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."

One of her colleagues diplomatically points out that while Bohling's heart may be in the right place, her logic leaves something to be desired: If the driving forces behind the association don't cough up enough money to carry their own weight, who will? Bohling laughs. "Hey, man, we can do a rock concert and have enough money to fund this thing for two or three years," she counters. "Like I keep telling you guys, we already paid our dues."

That was exactly the sort of hippy-dippy, freaky-deaky Zeitgeist that permeated the entire fabric of the hemp happening. Granted, some valid points were made during the weekend. Noting that more than 5,000 hemp products were once produced in the United States, one councilmember wondered why he kept seeing the same handful of products over and over.

"We need diversity," he preached. "Hopefully, we can create all-new hemp products--couches, sofas, surfboards, houses, whatever."

But for every voice of reason, there seemed to be at least two hempsters ready to advocate heartfelt nonsense, like the guy who thought it'd be groovy to incorporate the association under the laws of "the Native American nation," presumably because Indians would be more sympathetic to the cause. ("Yeah!" came a cheer from the back of the room. "Let's have a hemp casino!") And so it went. During an election of officers, an earnest young hopeful announced that his naivet‚ ("I want people to put things in my ears so I can rinse them through my head and come up with an opinion") made him the ideal candidate. (Few could doubt that qualification, particularly after hearing his proposal for a massive hemp emporium in New York City where salesclerks would preach the joys of cannabis.)

Another candidate gave voters food for thought when he boasted that he was the first hemp rapper in history to be censored. Reportedly fearing litigation, the record company that had released his song bleeped out the name "Du Pont."

Things really took a turn for the spacy when it came time to select a name for the brand-new trade organization. "I think we're all in agreement that the initials of this organization should not be THC," announced one councilmember at the outset, immediately prompting a chorus of groans from the True Hemp Certified faction. "Acronyms are important," volunteered another member. "The initials should spell something." Everyone agreed on that, opening the floodgates for several dozen suggestions ranging from HIC to HI; at one point, someone even shouted out something about ACID. Easily the strangest suggestion came from a waiflike woman who insisted the group should use the acronym HIP. "That way, we can have pins made that read HIP PIN--PIN standing for 'Partners in Nature'--and we can wear our HIP PIN pins on our hips." While we savored that one, someone else had another brainstorm: Rather than voting on a specific organizational name, why not first vote on individual words within the title? Thankfully, there was no support for that movement and the chairman closed nominations, asking members to applaud for their favorite choice in a "clap test."

The winner? Hemp Industries Association. Corporate America, say "hiya" to HIA.

Fresh from his presidential victory in HIA's first election, Chris Conrad ponders the organization's future while idly toying with a plastic marijuana leaf. "We don't perceive this as a quick-fix or a fad market," says 42-year-old Conrad. "This is a matter of us seizing our moment in history, recognizing that this is the rebirth of what we believe is going to be the biggest industry in the world over the next 100 years. We see this as something that's going to go on for generations and generations. Hemp is the future."

Conrad admits that marshaling the troops without causing mutiny within the ranks may be one of the association's biggest challenges. "We need to be able to tell them that in order to be in compliance with our standards, they need to do something, not just be in favor of marijuana. But because of the delicate sensitivities of these individuals, you just can't say that to some of these people.

"What it comes down to is that all of us came out here to create a trade association," says Conrad, already sounding like a capitalist. "And the people who believe that we must take some kind of political position beyond the scope of that trade association are going to be disappointed."

Several days after the conference is over, I outline the hempsters' plans to infiltrate the American garment industry to a buddy who's the vice president of a high-end men's clothing store in L.A. "This thing is never going to fly," he reports. "And it doesn't have anything to do with the problem of the marijuana image. The truth is that the American apparel manufacturers don't want to produce a more durable fiber. Why would they? They want to be able to sell you a new shirt every year--that's how they make their money." But what about consumers who might be willing to pay a premium price for a long-lasting garment made of hemp?

"You'd still have the image problem," he replies. "The big textile companies are very conservative. There is no way they're going to risk losing business by getting involved in a political issue like this."

But all is not lost.
"If these people are really serious about producing hemp clothing, my advice would be to somehow change the name of the fabric and turn the whole thing over to one of the major textile manufacturers who have experience in this field," he concludes. "Probably a company like Du Pont."

Du Pont?!! Bummer, man!!!

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