Smokin’!

Commercially viable and politically hip, hemp is growing in popularity.

CONFIRMATION THAT MODERN-DAY American revolutions take place at the checkout counter came in October, with the opening of the Austin Hemp Company—the fifth Texas business devoted solely to selling products made from hemp, the plant that in its smokable form is also known as marijuana. Half a dozen other stores around the state also sell hemp products, and no wonder: Sales have been increasing by more than 20 percent a year. The only catch is, all hemp products sold in the United States have to be imported. Although hemp was one of colonial America’s largest cash crops, growing it is presently illegal in the U.S.

Hemp’s popularity flows partly from the fact that the fabric looks like linen but is machine washable. It is also good for the environment; it can be grown without pesticides, does not deplete the soil, and can be used to preserve scarce resources. Hemp can be made into paper, for instance, conserving wood. This makes hempsters (as hemp fans call themselves) not just au courant but also politically hip—a point driven home this summer when ex-Houstonian Woody Harrelson appeared on Charlie Rose’s TV talk show dressed entirely in hemp clothing and explained that he had recently been arrested in Kentucky for planting four hemp seeds.

Hemp’s emergence as a hot commodity delights the hempsters, who watched its reputation suffer during the heyday of the war on drugs. “My contention is that this is activism through commerce,” says Richard Tomcala, who in 1992 co-founded one of the country’s first hemp-oriented businesses, Legal Marijuana: The Hemp Store, on Houston’s West Alabama Street. Three years later, Tomcala renamed it the Texas Hemp Company and, because sales far surpassed his expectations, moved it to a location on Westheimer Road that is four times as large. In the past four years, hemp-specific stores have also opened in Austin, San Marcos, Dallas, and Bryan and in states such as Washington and California. The Austin Hemp Company and Austin’s Wildflower, a home furnishings store that specializes in organic fibers, both plan to introduce lines of hemp clothing designed and manufactured in Texas. Even Willie Nelson has gotten into the act: The singer, who likes hemp almost as much as golf, has endorsed his own line of hemp clothing.

Needless to say, hemp has its share of detractors. “They are saying that hemp will save the rain forest, decrease the national debt, and reduce crime,” anti-hemp activist Nina B. Wright wrote in 1994. “The legalization advocates are using these messages to detract from their real motive: to make pot smoking lifestyles more convenient!” That may be true—yet as far as hemp’s less controversial uses go, the public seems to have made up its mind. If checkbooks and charge cards are any indication, the hempsters are smokin’ the opposition.

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