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Published Oct. 4, 2005


What's all the buzz about?

"Anything and everything can be made out of this plant," says a Tampa store owner.

The plant, which has long had a reputation for being used to produce marijuana, an illicit drug, is being grown for industrial, not just recreational, use. From lip balm to boxer shorts, hemp is in vogue. Although it is illegal to grow any form of cannibas sativa in the United States, it is permissible to import it from countries such as China, Romania and Hungary.

Proponents of hemp say it is the strength and versatility of the material that is attracting consumers and helping the plant make a fashion breakthrough.

"In the past, it was a novelty item, but the novelty has worn off," said Mitch Cahn, president of Head Case, a New Jersey-based manufacturer that specializes in making hats from hemp. "People now realize it's a superior fabric."

Ted Waldron, owner of World Underground, a Tampa alternative clothing store, has tapped into the trend by selling hemp products such as hats and backpacks and plans to carry a line of hemp jeans in the fall. Waldron says he has received only positive comments about his hemp wares and believes the plant should be legalized for industrial use in the United States.

Waldron said he has witnessed a growing demand for hemp, as area retailers who carry the items are selling hemp accessories such as jewelry and wallets. However, some retailers are hesitant to carry the merchandise because of the cost. A "100% Pure Hemp" hat from Waldron's store retails for $27.99 _ much more than hats made from cotton. A hemp shirt can retail for as much as $125. He says most of his "hempsters" are in their mid-20s and do not have a lot of money to spend, but they do want to spend it on products they say are good for the environment.

Nationwide, the hemp trend is growing. A recent New York Times article reports that designers such as Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren are using the fabric in their top clothing lines, Lauren for as long as 10 years. Nike, one of the top shoe companies, is testing a hemp shoe. However, most brand-name manufacturers are reluctant to discuss their use of hemp because of the legalization debate, which has resulted in much of the growth occurring on the small, specialty-shop level.

But make no mistake, the material they are so excited about is made to be worn, not smoked.

A study released by Drug Watch International says the level of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the active component of cannibas, is only found in trace amounts in the clothing. Even if people did attempt to smoke their hemp hat or jeans, all they would get would be a bad taste in their mouth and maybe a headache. Clothing manufacturers say they are not trying to make a political statement about legalizing hemp, just trying to make a profit.

In fact, industrial hemp has gone from an almost non-existant market to a $25-million-a-year industry, said Ken Friedman, president of Seattle-based American Mercantile, which manufactures a hemp line consisting of paper, clothing and fabric.

Friedman says the hemp market can be divided into three main areas. The first consumers to buy hemp products did so to advertise their personal support for recreational drug use.

Next came those who bought the goods for environmental reasons. The challenge for hemp manufacturers now is to lure those who buy the product for style or fashion. Friedman predicts the mainstream transition will happen within the next two years.

"I like the way it looks and feels," said 18-year old Carlotta Huber, who owns a hemp shirt and hat. "I also like what it stands for. Just because I support it (legalization) doesn't mean I do it. I think people should be able to do whatever they want as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else."

Despite the benefits of industrial hemp, the battle over legalization is tied up in a political tug-of-war. The question is, what is the difference between legalizing recreational and industrial hemp and what will be the consequences of the two? The answer is clear to Christine Bohling, director of Coalition for Hemp Awareness.

"It's totally two separate issues," Bohling said. The Arizona-based coalition supports the legalization of hemp and carries its own line of hemp products. The coalition's latest creation is the Hemp Industries Association, a watchdog group made up of manufacturers and retailers of hemp products.

Although business is lucrative, Bohling said the government is cheating the American people out of a major source of revenue.

"Our farmers are still not making a dime off this," she said.

It was not always illegal to grow the plant in the United States, though. Hemp was grown as a cash crop in the colonies and made illegal in 1937. It was legalized for a brief period during World War II and has been outlawed ever since. Legalization advocates are quick to offer that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew cannabis on their plantations, so why can't farmers now?

Supporters of the legalization of hemp say it is the lobbying powers of rival industries, such as cotton and petroleum, that will fight to keep hemp from becoming legal. Add in the argument that the legalization of industrial hemp cannot be separated from the legalization of recreational hemp, and the lines become blurred.

"Basically, this is a drug-culture-driven demand," said William Roques, of the Drug Enforcement Agency's Miami field division. "It's a novelty; it could be a niche crop, but it's certainly not necessary."

In 1937, when marijuana was made illegal, the number of hemp crops fell below 200, and demand dwindled naturally, he said.

In its latest reincarnation, Roques said, the benefits of hemp are greatly exaggerated, especially the environmental, and hemp has seen its time as a fashion statement. Fashion-conscious consumers will not want to buy a shirt or pair of pants that will last for many years because it simply will not be in style, he said.

Roques also says there is a greater risk in promoting hemp.

"If you let your kids advertise drugs, you're setting them up for it," he said.

The DEA official said despite the push, hemp products are not making headway in the effort to legalize hemp.

For now, it's in the hands of consumers to see if hemp will really be a hit.