Hemp activists try to draw a line between their miracle plant and its cannabis cousin

by Mike Gibson

In the world of commercial cannabis, it's often difficult to separate sober enterprise from its bong-trafficking counterpart. Take, for instance, the Hemp Store in Gatlinburg. Announced by nothing more than a storefront logo and the wafting, musky-sweet odor of patchouli, the cozy hut off Highway 321 warehouses reams of literature on hemp, the wonder weed; textile stalwart; Herculean cord-maker; New Age salve; enviro-friendly fuel source; fiber nonpareil. Its floor is a veritable museum exhibit of hemp products, full of unvarnished tree-limb display racks

laden with hemp T-shirts, hemp blazers, hemp vests, hemp jeans, hemp wallets, hemp backpacks, hemp guitar bags, hemp jewelry, hemp lip balm...

Yet the shop is also strewn with magazines, window decals, bumper stickers, and smart-ass T-shirts celebrating hemp's reprobate cousin, marijuana, the wacky weed; fog inducer; brain-cell killer; de facto Taco Bell advocate; illicit drug of choice for some three generations.

And hidden behind a bead-crusted bamboo curtain (dubbed the "Smoking Hut") in the rear are two glass display cases full of lustrous, exotically contoured water pipes—the term "bong" is verboten; due to an absurd legislative mandate, even the most convoluted assemblage of glass lobes and plastic cylinders must be labeled "For tobacco use only." But the subterfuge is painfully transparent, and the assortment of goods is colorfully broad—skull pipes, space-alien pipes, teddy bear pipes, dolphin pipes, Sesame Street pipes...

Agriculture and counterculture, it would seem, make for uneasy bedfellows—or poor housemates, at any rate. Hemp Store manager Jason Owens, a 22-year-old Nashville expatriate, claims he would just as soon eliminate the Smoking Hut and its deceptively-labeled wares outright, although he confesses that "it would be difficult to stay open," given that pipe sales account for roughly half of the store's business.

"I'd rather the hemp products speak for themselves," says Owens, who, by the way, is careful to maintain the "tobacco only" party line when discussing his selection of smoking implements. "If you ask me personally, I think it all should be legal—hemp farming, marijuana for medical or recreational purposes, whatever. But the issues should be separated. A lot of people like to put them together, and there's no point in it."

Which nods again at the strange dichotomy that lies at the heart of the cannabis question, the tug-of-war between the ostensibly serious business of hemp-related commerce and the head-shop aesthetic that often attends it. It's a curious cultural overlap, especially given the recent public awakening to the almost breathtakingly extensive range of hemp's merits and applications.

To wit: the fiber from both the hemp stalk and its core is uniquely versatile and durable, with almost unrivaled utility in textile, paper (where it reportedly has four times the yield-per-acre of wood pulp), rope, and even plastics production. The oil from the hemp seed holds further promise as a food source rivaling soybeans, as a chemical additive and all-purpose lubricant, and as a bio-diesel fuel with sterling ecological credentials. And all of these benefits, hemp supporters remind us, are derived from a plant that grows seed to stalk in roughly four months, requiring few if any environmentally unfriendly chemical facilitants.

For all intents and purposes, however, hemp farming is illegal in the United States, stymied by a 60-year-old federal act purportedly drafted to remedy the rampant social ills wrought by the plant's devil-weed kin. That obstacle notwithstanding, farmers, academics, and business leaders have recently begun to rediscover an entire mislaid industry, a lost mainstay of American agriculture, and trumpet its virtues in the pages of staid, respectable publications with names like Pulp & Paper, Delta Farm Press, and Agri Alternatives..

At the Missouri-based Hemp Industry Association, one of a growing number of national hemp organizations, board member Candi Penn claims membership "seems to be doubling every year," with more than $50 million in sales projected for its 210 member businesses in 1997. International corporate entities such as Adidas (tennis shoes) and Mercedes-Benz (car interiors) are using imported hemp in their product lines. And locally, shops like the Hemp Store, Whatever (a psychedelic gift shop on Cumberland Avenue), Threds, and Little Sisters Gifts vend a sprawling array of hemp wares.

This nascent hemp renaissance has already birthed laws permitting experimental hemp agriculture in three states, with similar legislation under consideration in several more, including Tennessee.

The rub is that the movement boasts a longer-running but perhaps less reputable subset of boosters—neo-hippies, bohemian college kids, drug legalization advocates—who some critics believe undermine the cause with their mixed agenda of libertine hedonism and environmental concern. As one local activist puts it, skeptics often look at the hemp movement as little more than "a bunch of long-hairs trying to justify smoking weed."

A Hemp Primer

That perception is in part linked to what may be the biggest lingering misconception about cannabis—that hemp and marijuana are one and the same; or to quote one scruffy-chinned local advocate, that hemp products are, in essence, "made of pot."

And that's hardly the case, says Dr. Neil Rhodes, professor and extension weed control specialist at the University of Tennessee. Rhodes explains that hemp and marijuana are actually distinct hybrids of the same species, Cannabis sativa—as different from one another as any other two distinct crop strains or perhaps even breeds of dog.

"Typically a hemp plant would be a poor source of hallucinogen, while the plants bred for their hallucinogenic properties would be a poor source of fiber," Rhodes says. He recalls with a chuckle the story of a hemp research facility in Stovall, Mississippi, plagued by a rash of break-ins, followed in short order by an outbreak of acute lung irritation among incoming patients at the emergency room of a local hospital.

Marijuana, says Rhodes, contains a higher concentration of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive ingredient in dope that casts brain cells into muddled disarray and stimulates the command centers that govern late-night Twinkie binges. While the THC level in marijuana generally runs between 2 and 7 percent, and sometimes exceeds 10 percent in especially high-grade weed, the THC in hemp measures well below 1 percent.

The two plants are similar in several respects—they range between 6 and 16 feet in height, and the mature bushes share roughly the same leaf configuration. But whereas marijuana is cultivated for the fragrant green buds that copiously adorn the full-grown plant, hemp farmers seek to nourish the stalk at the expense of the foliage.

"With hemp, you've got a large number of plants in one square foot of soil," says Penn. "That makes for tall, straight stalks, which make for the best fiber. With marijuana, the plants are placed farther apart to grow out the bush."

So given these differences, why is hemp farming a federal crime in the United States? The short answer is that the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 essentially rolled marijuana and hemp into the same fat illicit spliff, eventually placing hemp farming under the auspices of the Drug Enforcement Agency (which hasn't issued a license in decades). The long answer is more complex and begs some knowledge of hemp history.

Almost every available reference material on the subject of hemp will at some point recite the same gee-whiz litany of Ripley-esque historical factoids—that the sails of the Mayflower were woven from hemp fibers; that the first two drafts of the Declaration of Independence were scrawled on hemp paper; that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson counted hemp among their chief crops; that it was once the chief source of paper and cloth worldwide...

"Without question, it was grown substantially and was a very important early fiber source," says Rhodes, adding that the fiber was particularly important for seafaring endeavors, given its stubborn resistance to rot and salt damage.

Because of the difficulty involved in harvesting hemp and separating fiber from pulp, usage declined somewhat with the rise of other, more readily-harvested materials. But with the advent of new technologies for harvesting and stripping the plant, the industry was, by several accounts, poised for a resurgence at the onset of the 1930s. It was at that point that the fate of hemp was suddenly and inextricably intertwined with that of its tokable relative.

"There are some fairly credible conspiracy theories as to why hemp was targeted [by the '37 law]," says David Hollingsworth, proprietor of Industrial Grade Hemp Company, a Crossville-based mail order hemp clothing distributor. "There were some powerful interests who definitely would have benefited by controlling hemp."

Hemp advocates like Jack Herer, author of The Emperor Wears No Clothes, a veritable scripture for disciples of both hemp and marijuana legalization, believe the 1937 Marijuana Tax Law was the product of a conspiracy hatched by players in the chemical and paper industries, and that the era's "reefer madness" anti-marijuana scare tactics were little more than a ploy to stifle domestic hemp production.

Whatever the case, the '37 act placed hemp farming under federal auspices, first taxing it prohibitively, then controlling it outright. And save for a brief period in the 1940s when production was vigorously encouraged for the sake of the war effort (for naval use), hemp farming has since been effectively illegal in the United States.

...And it makes great rope!

But if there's any truth in the notion that the campaign against marijuana was a red herring conceived by self-serving industrialists, the colossal irony of the hemp renaissance is that many of its earliest and staunchest champions have been immersed in the sort of countercultural trappings commonly associated with the drug.

A regular at Cumberland Avenue tie-dye hot-spots, 22-year-old Joy Higdon began weaving hemp jewelry three-and-a-half years ago to scrape up extra coin for an extended Grateful Dead road-trip. "When you don't have any money, you can take jewelry with you and make enough for food and gas," says Higdon, a senior in Environmental Studies at UT.

The excursion proved to be a comic misadventure straight out of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters-era diary; Higdon and a handful of friends piled into a dilapidated old VW bus that they would abandon twice, parting with it temporarily in Arkansas before finally leaving it for dead in New York. Fortunately for Higdon and her cash-strapped travel companions, her elaborately-beaded macramé necklaces and bracelets were hot tickets on the Deadhead circuit.

"It's almost like wearing jewelry that's made out of marijuana," Higdon says with a laugh. "People like to wear it because it makes a statement. Some of them are just into the marijuana aspect and aren't as aware of the agricultural side of it, so I try to give them some facts. They're really surprised when they hear about what hemp can do."

Higdon's brand of tie-dye activism isn't uncommon; hemp vendors and legalization advocates are a staple on the neo-psychedelic jam-band circuit (Phish, Widespread Panic, et al), while activists groups like the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML) simultaneously champion both the practical and recreational uses of cannabis.

It is, at times, an uneasy juxtaposition, one that doesn't always sit well with some of the sober business interests seeking legalized hemp agriculture, often in the face of legislators and law enforcement officials skeptical of the movement's dope-centric underpinnings.

Cordova, Tenn.'s Peter Nelson, for one, is almost scornful in assessing some of his fellow hemp advocates. Nelson's year-old firm, Galloway Fields Co., is exploring the commercial potential of hemp and a variety of other so-called alternative fibers.

"With hemp, lots of people have mixed agendas, and sometimes they use things that aren't necessarily true to push those agendas," says Nelson. "We're coming from a farming perspective, a world trade perspective. Our work has nothing to do with a drug-related agenda."

But according to Hollingsworth, who dates his activism back to a day 10 years ago when he saw a hemp clothing display in Spencer's in West Town Mall, the beads-and-patchouli contingent has played an indispensable role in rescuing hemp from history's rag-heap.

"In a sense, that kind of association hurts because it keeps in people's minds that this might be just another way to sneak in marijuana legislation," says Hollingsworth. "It's hard to explain what you're trying to do when you're wearing dreadlocks, nose rings, and a Grateful Dead T-shirt. But somewhere along the way, industry people have listened to these people. If not for those people, the hemp movement might be out of business."

"When we dealt with European countries, we always heard 'Americans can't separate their rope from their dope,'" says John Morris, a 25-year-old Knoxvillian who co-founded an urban apparel company in 1994 before leaving the business to finish school. "But a lot of hemp entrepreneurs are young people with a broad perspective, and a lot of hemp products are sold to young people."

With no domestic hemp sources available, however, enterprises like Morris' are forced to rely on pricier imported fiber, purchases that are often subject to additional tariffs and taxes; a pair of hemp pants from Morris' former company, for instance, sold for nearly $70 retail. And an otherwise cost-efficient ream of hemp paper, says Hollingsworth, runs in excess of $20, some three to four times a ream of its wood pulp counterpart.

"That wouldn't be the case if we had any sources here," says Hollingsworth. "Right now, a lot of people who buy hemp products do so because they're taking a stand, not because it's more economical."

That may change soon. Penn says Vermont, Hawaii, and North Dakota have passed laws permitting experimental crops in 1998, while 12 more states have pending legislation.

There's nothing like homegrown

That the movement is gathering steam was further evidenced by a hemp presentation staged at this year's National Conference of State Legislators. The demonstration so impressed Tennessee freshman state Representative Kathryn Bowers (D-Memphis) that she brought a similar presentation before the state agriculture committee during the first half of this year's assembly, and in January will sponsor a bill to make hemp farming legal for commercial as well as experimental use in Tennessee, albeit with more restrictions than other crops.

As vice chair of the ag committee, Bowers sees hemp as both a utopian alternative, a boon to an economy too heavily dependent on tobacco farming (with the livelihoods of more than 25,000 families pinned to the crop, according to her statistics), and a beacon for burgeoning new industry as hemp's viability (and respectability) quotient continues to rise.

"That's why we're pushing for commercial farming, not just research crops," says Bowers. "It's to our benefit, economically speaking, to get ahead of the curve."

Bowers anticipates resistance from a few quarters—particularly law enforcement—although she says feedback from fellow legislators thus far has been encouraging. "I expect to hear some dissent from police agencies and also legislators who are reluctant because of the marijuana association. There are some fears that law enforcement wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the plants. But from the information I've received, I don't believe that telling them apart will be a problem."

What could be a problem, say some observers, is raising enough awareness and arousing enough vocal activism to sway reticent, backside-conscious lawmakers—breaking through the wall of apathy that, particularly in East Tennessee, seems to hem in the ground swell of public support necessary for social and legal change.

On the surface, the Knoxville area looks like a trough of hemp activism, with its vast, fertile farming hinterlands, its large university population, and its preoccupation with many of the hippie-retro countercultural phenomena that often go hand-in-hand with that certain sector of the movement.

But in recent years, two would-be hemp festivals have been canceled (in Crossville and Gatlinburg), and discounting a handful of entrepreneurs and self-styled advocates, the movement has no organized presence hereabouts. "A lot of the hemp jewelry and other trappings you see here are more about making a fashion statement than a political one," says Owens.

"What I saw a lot was that people here will talk about it over a beer or buy a necklace, and that's their vote," says Morris. "They would 'ooh' and 'aah' and giggle about wearing an ankle bracelet, but when it came to buying a pair of pants that was maybe a little more expensive, it was like, 'Sorry, I'm strapped for cash right now.' In places like California or Colorado, people are more willing to forego a little beer money or whatever to make a statement.

"Ultimately, it's just a matter of time before enough moneyed interests get involved and laws are passed, or someone with a little capital takes it into litigation. It's just a shame it won't happen sooner. We have a chance to take the lead, and we're not doing it because we can't get our botany straight."