Hemp, Hemp, Hooray

"Hemp Factory. Be hemp," says a cheerful female clerk answering the phone in the Boca Raton boutique. Or was that, "Buy hemp"? It doesn't matter, really. In the shop, everything in sight -- hemp-seed-oil shampoo, hemp-fiber clothing, hemp-flour tortilla chips -- is made from marijuana's impotent cousin. So in order to "be hemp," you must buy.

Since 1937 growing either smokable pot or textile-friendly Cannabis sativa in the United States has been illegal. The wares in the Boca store, Hemp Village in Coral Springs, and hundreds of other specialty shops around the country are made from the fiber, oil, and seeds of hemp imported to the U.S. Hemp contains so little THC -- the psychoactive drug in marijuana -- that it won't get you stoned. But hemp's hip cachet is no doubt tied to a nod-and-wink association with its mind-altering cousin. Hemp's purported health benefits and its eco-friendly image as an alternative to textiles and leather also make it a perfect sell to the nouveau-hippie set.

Product packaging illustrates the hemp-to-pot connection. A packet of Hemp 'n' Blue Corn Tortilla Chips, for example, bears the slogan "Tastes Like Freedom." And a bottle of Alterna hair conditioner containing hemp oil is... well, it's shaped like a bong.

So for various reasons, hemp is hip. Profiteers, of course, like a fad, and this is one they helped fuel. In 1994, 22 hemp purveyors formed the Hemp Industries Association, a California-based trade group that now boasts nearly 300 members. It just so happens that the owner of both Hemp Factory and Hemp Village, 27-year-old Ira Schneider, worked as a Florida sales rep for one of the charter businesses, a Washington-state hemp clothing company.

Today Schneider is busy building his South Florida "hempire." With two locations up and running, he foresees opening a third store within a year. "I felt like it was a natural calling," says Schneider. "I'm entrepreneurial and environmental."

Hemp advocates make many claims about the plant: Using hemp to make paper conserves trees; hemp oil is as good for you as soy oil and easier to digest; hemp fiber is so durable that clothes made from it last longer than clothes made from conventional fabrics.

Hemp's versatility even has manufacturers using it in clean-burning fuel and the production of paints and plastics. Industry players predict that in the year 2001 worldwide hemp sales will reach $600 million, a chunk of change U.S. farmers want in on. In several states farmers' groups are challenging the 62-year-old antihemp law.

Legal issues, as well as the many uses of hemp, will be discussed during The Journey to the Everglades Hemp Festival April 10 at Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation. Schneider organized the festival, which he says was attended by 7500 people last year. Hemp companies will convene for a trade show, a hemp fashion show is scheduled, and plenty of hemp food and drinks will be available. A concert lineup includes headliner Eddie Money, the Pink Floyd cover band the Machine, and more than ten local acts.

If you head to the hemp hoedown, which is open to campers, don't count on clouds of smoke to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Whether individuals indulge in unsanctioned smoking or not, you're probably better off with a stash of bug juice. How does Herbal Insect Repellent, made with hemp, sound?

-- John Ferri

The Journey to the Everglades Hemp Festival will take place April 10 at the rodeo grounds on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, ten miles north of I-75's exit 14. Ticket prices range from $20 to $25. Call 954-796-3301 or 561-367-1636.

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John Ferri