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HEMP: IT'S NOT FOR SMOKING

You can wear hemp clothes. Sit on hemp furniture. Even use processed hemp fuel to [power your automobile]. But don’t try to smoke it. “It would give you a headache and that’s about it,” said David Bronner, a board member of both the California-based trade group Hemp Industries Association (HIA) and the political action committee Vote Hemp.

While you don’t get stoned from smoking hemp, the belief that you do remains the biggest misconception about the plant as proponents fight for the acceptance of hemp products.

For the record, hemp is a sister of marijuana, but comes from a different type of cannabis plant. They look almost identical in the wild, but the key difference is their level of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

While marijuana might contain up to 20 percent of THC, hemp contains less than 1 percent. And, after the seed or plant is cleaned and processed, the level of THC is reduced to trace amounts.

Still, public perception remains that hemp and marijuana are one and the same. “You say ‘hemp’ and they say ‘pot,’” said Sandi Poyer, co-owner of Natural Mystic Smoke Shop, 2307 Las Vegas Blvd. South, which carries a full line of hemp products. “The mind goes there.”

Even Bronner acknowledged “about half do and half don’t” know the difference between hemp and marijuana.

“Which is less than it used to be,” he said. “But we’ve still got a long way to go.”

In the meantime, though, the ignorance persists. “A lot of people will come in and see the hemp suckers and say, ‘Hey, am I going to get a buzz?’” said Vaughan Cannon, manager of the Jungle Zone in Meadows mall, which sells hemp products. “A lot of people aren’t educated. They think hemp and they think THP.”

While critics of hemp focus on what hemp isn’t, its proponents focus on what hemp is: a virtual wonder plant used in and to make myriad products.

Among hemp facts from the HIA’s website:

Hemp fiber is longer, stronger, more absorbent and more insulative than cotton fiber. The hydrocarbons in hemp can be processed into a wide range of biomass energy sources, from fuel pellets to liquid fuels and gas, which could reduce consumption of fossil fuels and nuclear power. Hemp seed is more nutritious than soybean, contains more essential fatty acids than any other source, is second only to soybeans in complete protein — but is more digestible for humans — is high in B vitamins and is 35 percent dietary fiber. Hemp produces more pulp per acre than timber on a sustainable basis and can be used for every quality of paper. Hemp fiber paper resists decomposition. Hemp paper more than 1,500 years old has been discovered. Hemp fiberboard produced by Washington State University in Pullman was found to be twice as strong as wood-based fiberboard. Eco-friendly hemp can replace most toxic petrochemical products. For example, research is being conducted to use hemp in manufacturing biodegradable plastic products. Hemp is already used in foods, body-care products, textiles and even building materials.

“We do have a following with hemp,” Poyer said. “I’d need a whole new store for everything.”

All this attention has meant a staggering growth for the hemp industry, from $26,000 in sales in 1990 to $250 million this year, said Candi Penn, executive director for the HIA.

When the HIA was launched in 1994 there were 50 hemp companies in the group. Membership has since swelled to 200 member companies.

While 14 states have passed legislation that support industrial hemp, it remains illegal to grow in the United States — the only major industrialized nation to prohibit the growing and processing of hemp.

But this wasn’t always the case.

Colonial farmers relied on the plant for survival. In fact, according to Bronner, the plant was so important the first law in Jamestown made it mandatory for all farmers to grow hemp.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp and the first draft of the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper.

During World War II when the Japanese cut off the nation’s supply of hemp from the Philippines, the government began a “Hemp for Victory” campaign, urging U.S. farmers to grow hemp needed for rope, military clothes and even jet fuel.

After the war, however, hemp became a casualty of the nation’s emerging battle against drugs.

And by the ’60s the Drug Enforcement Agency was given jurisdiction over the plant from the Department of Agriculture.

“I go to farm shows and trade shows and everybody is for it,” Penn said. “Everybody understands it’s not a drug except the Drug Enforcement Agency.”

But, she maintains, the DEA receives millions in budgetary funding to burn wild hemp in the Midwest that was once grown legally by farmers.

“The eradication program that the DEA has is quite lucrative ... that’s one aspect of it,” she said. “They’re not eradicating a drug but hemp.”

Even now the hemp industry is waging a legal war against the DEA in the U.S. court of appeals for the Ninth Circuit over banning hemp foods.

It’s a battle Bronner and Penn said they expect the hemp industry to win.

While the DEA remains concerned over the trace amounts of THC in hemp, lawyers for the hemp industry pointed out there are also trace amounts of opiates in poppy seeds.

When pressed by the judge, even the DEA acknowledged in court it wasn’t concerned over the amount of THC in hemp.

“The DEA has never said, has never focused on the particular products and said anyone can get high from them, or that they pose a harm to people,” said DEA attorney Daniel Dormont during final oral arguments.

Instead, the DEA has often claimed hemp farming would send the wrong signal to teenagers and would allow marijuana farmers to hide their crops with industrial hemp plants.

Either way, the DEA’s argument “is not going to fly with the judges,” Bronner said.

“It’s been a long battle and a big hassle, but once we get the DEA out of the marketplace, it’s going to be pretty much smooth sailing.”

Bronner predicted five years before hemp can legally be grown in the United States, while Penn less optimistically predicted 10.

In the meantime, hemp products remain relatively scarce in Las Vegas. Area natural food stores often have a limited selection of hemp merchandise and foods.

A trip to a neighborhood Trader Joe’s, for instance, turned up two hemp products — granola and soap — while a nearby Wild Oats Markets had a slightly larger selection: bread, various body lotions, shampoos and conditioners and a small assortment of shoulder bags and backpacks.

Meanwhile, both Diversity and Tribal Piercing & Streetwear, which once carried hemp clothing and accessories, have either stopped selling the merchandise or drastically reduced their inventory because of lack of sales — usually because of its higher price.

A hemp backpack at Wild Oats Markets, for instance, costs $48.

“You can go to Copelands Sports down the street and buy a JanSport bag for $20 less,” said Jacklyn Nardozzi, a natural living clerk at Wild Oats. “They’re pricey ... people don’t want to spend that much money on them.”

But, she quickly adds, the hemp bags are high-quality products.

“The (bags) are durable. I’ve worn it many times times and it doesn’t fade,” Nardozzi said. “You pay for what you get.”

Meanwhile, The Body Shop at Desert Passage Mall at Aladdin carries a full line of hemp lotions, body oils, moisuterizers, lip balm, foot powders and face protectors and Natural Mystic offers the most complete line of hemp products in the city: everything from wallets, hacky sacks and ties to shirts, post cards and three-piece suits.

The fact that a smoke shop carries the largest selection of hemp products in town, though, is hardly helpful to the image of hemp as a nondrug.

That culture identifies with it because it’s cannabis, although it’s not a drug, Penn said. I guess they all lump it together.

She said the ultimate goal for the hemp industry is to move merchandise beyond smoke stores and Internet sites devoted to tie-dyes and more into the mainstream.

Already both Ford and Chrysler use hemp to create a Fiberglas for car luggage racks that is nontoxic to workers, as well as using it for door paneling because of its superior insulation.

And both Sony and Nike use hemp paper products for CD insert sheets and tear-out cards, respectively.

I think every year people are more educated about hemp, she said. More products are coming on line and people are not making the same jokes, ‘Can I smoke that bag?’

Written by: Kirk Baird, Las Vegas Sun


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