|It's a fantastic product, says Elizabeth Western, a local clothing retailer who sells hemp purses, shirts and jeans at Chameleon Natural Boutique on Manatee Avenue.|
She'd like to see laws change to make it legal to produce hemp for clothing. The United States is the only developed nation in the world that doesn't produce hemp as an economic crop, according to NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Several states have passed laws allowing hemp to be grown for research and commercial purposes. But farmers in those states can't grow the outlaw crop without a federal OK.
Hemp and marijuana are varieties of the same plant, cannabis sativa. Industrial hemp is bred with low levels of THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient.
You can't get high from smoking industrial hemp, according to the Parkland Industrial Hemp Growers Association, a research foundation in Manitoba, Canada. All you can get is a headache.
Tina Kimball and other activists believe hemp is illegal because it looks like marijuana. Kimball is president of the student chapter of NORML at the University of Central Florida.
It's a mindset that irritates Western.
"When you're growing hemp, you're not growing a field of pot," she says.
But that's exactly what could happen if it were legal to grow hemp, according to Tom Riley, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington D.C.
"The problem is that the plants all derive from the cannabis genus," Riley said. "It would allow marijuana and hemp to be grown side by side. It would impose an unreasonable burden on local law enforcement."
Hemp's strength and earth-friendly qualities appeal to Western. It doesn't require pesticides, unlike cotton, the most popular crop for clothing, and also the most sprayed.
Western researches the companies she buys from and looks for businesses that subscribe to fair trade practices, provide employment to destitute women and try to minimize impact to the environment. At Chameleon, Western sells organic cotton teething bears, T-shirts dyed with clay, and other home and clothing products.
But hemp is her favorite frustration. It's grown legally in Canada, she says. "Why not here?"
Hemp has myriad applications. Its fiber, seed and oil are used for food, paper, building materials and personal products, like hand cream. Grown with little or no fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides, it's no wonder the plant is called weed.
The seed of the hemp plant has all 10 amino acids humans need to survive, says one of its admirers, Anthony Lorenzo. Lorenzo is a member of the Florida Cannabis Action Network in Sarasota, an organization that supports the tax and regulation of all forms of cannabis.
"It's almost as if this plant's evolutionary tactic to survive was to be useful to humans," Lorenzo said.
Activists for the legalization of industrial hemp predict that the United States is entering a period of greater tolerance to alternative resources.
With today's high gas prices and biofuels becoming more viable, cost benefit analyses for hemp production are also becoming more viable, said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML in Washington D.C.
"It's not just the durability of the fabric that makes it appealing," he said. "They're reflecting the desire of the marketplace. The problem is, the product is too expensive. It would be cheaper for an American company to grow it."
In 2005, Ron Paul, R-Texas, and a handful of senators introduced legislation to repeal the federal ban on the cultivation of industrial hemp as a commercial crop. The Industrial Hemp Farming Act would have allowed states to license and regulate hemp cultivation.
The bill was dead on arrival in Congress, said St. Pierre.
"In every state where individuals have a chance to vote for marijuana reform, voters vote for it," he said. "Politicians then pass resolutions 180 degrees in the opposite direction. This Congress doesn't seem capable of divorcing itself from prohibition tendencies."
The chief objection to legalizing industrial hemp appears to be that law enforcement would be unable to tell the difference between it and marijuana.
Hemp and marijuana are close relatives that are either different-looking or impossible to tell apart, depending on who you ask.
"The plants in the field look very similar," says Keith Watson, a hemp specialist with the Manitoba Agricultural Foods and Rural Initiative, Canada's equivalent of the Department of Agriculture.
Canada produced 20,000 acres of hemp last year, and 74 percent of it went to the United States.
"The U.S. is certainly behind as far as licensing and growing industrial hemp," Watson said.
In Canada, industrial hemp has 0.3 percent of THC as opposed to marijuana, which has 2 percent or higher. In the field, the two crops cross-pollinate. But when they do, it tends to dilute THC levels in marijuana.
If a field of hemp registers above the accepted level for THC, it is immediately ploughed under, according to Parkland Industrial Hemp Growers Co-op, a research foundation in Manitoba.
St. Pierre looks to the past for hope. Hanging in his office is a poster dating back to World War II, proclaiming "Hemp For Victory."
Although marijuana became illegal in the United States in 1937, the law was reversed from 1940 to 1945 when a dire shortage of canvas rope, caulking oil and cordage prompted the Department of War to circulate the poster. The word canvas is derived from cannabis, according to Webster's dictionary.
The federal government subsidized Scouts and Boys & Girls Clubs, teaching children how to make hemp rope and twine during World War II, St. Pierre said.
How much hemp does the United States import? The Hemp Industries Association in Occidental, Calif., doesn't have the numbers but is working on a market study.
Steve Logothetis imports hemp from Romania for Hemp Basics, his Warren, N.J.-based company. Most fiber products come from Asia and eastern Europe, he says. Canadian hemp imports are mostly dedicated to seed products.
But despite its earth-friendly qualities, hemp is more expensive to produce than cotton, mostly because the technology hasn't caught up, Logothetis says.
For hemp fiber to be produced in the United States it will take not only a change in mind-set but considerable capital investment in production and processing.
"The industry would have to be built from the bottom up," he said. "It doesn't exist here."
Changing the mind-set would require politicians to stop equating hemp with marijuana, he said. "It's like outlawing corn because it could be made into moonshine."
People who wear hemp, like Amy Arnell, love it for its softness and durability. But Arnell said she wears hemp for other reasons.
"I feel good about wearing hemp, knowing that I'm supporting the people that take the time to manufacture it," she said. "People are not just smoking it. We are using it. It is resourceful."