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The Straight Dope

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If you're looking to score some Cannabis products this weekend, stop under the Caras Park Pavilion on Saturday.

The second annual Missoula Hempfest and Alternative Living Faire will feature local bands, more than 40 vendors pushing everything from hemp dog leashes to hemp cheese (although dime bags will not be available, and those caught getting high will be asked to leave), and a string of speakers and workshops showcasing the versatile plant's uses.

Festival organizers hope to show the Garden City that there's a lot more to humanity's oldest cultivated crop than catching a buzz. Instead, earth-friendly organizations like Missoula Urban Demonstration and the Center for Resourceful Building Technologies plan to demonstrate to fair goers that the hemp plant could help us clothe, house, and feed ourselves without clearcuts, polyester or pesticides.

Organizer Marianne Smith calls the event an opportunity to do outreach about a weed that's been demonized for generations and federally banned -- for all uses -- since 1937. "We want to educate people about hemp as a viable resource, that there are other ways to do things without abusing Mother Nature," Smith says.

The hemp, or Cannabis, plant has been used since ancient times for rope, paper, oil, medicine and objects as wide ranging as the parachute that saved George Bush in World War II and drafts of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Meanwhile, the plant's narcotic twin, marijuana, has long been one of America's favorite drugs as well as the bane of many parents and lawmakers.

According to Smith, continued confusion stemming from hemp's connections to America's drug culture remains the biggest obstacle to the development and cultivation of hemp. "We have to let people know," she says, "that hemp has nothing to do with drugs."

To help keep that distinction clear, faire organizers are prohibiting vendors of drug paraphernalia at the hempfest. Volunteers will be on the lookout for baked goods laced with clandestine grass and partiers sneaking a toke. "It's not going to be a 4-20 smokeout," Smith says, referring to a California code for pot smoking.

Hemp advocates have compiled vast data extolling the extraordinary properties of the plant.

They claim: Paper made from hemp is of higher quality and more recyclable than that made from wood. Hemp fabrics are softer, stronger and more durable than cotton, a plant which requires high pesticide concentrations. Hemp grows quickly with little maintenance and in every state and province in North America.

Pointing to hemp's past industrial use, they point out that during World War II the federal government bypassed its ban and coaxed farmers to grow hemp for military uses. But the vision hemp fans imagine of a 21st century where we cap the oil wells, let the forests grow and rely on hemp for clothing, food and paper may not come quickly.

Questions remain, especially from the forestry and chemical communities, as well as environmentalists, about advocates' claims that their plant is a panacea for the planet's ills.

In an editorial in Australia's Canberra Times, one of Greenpeace's founder, Patrick Moore, questions the wisdom of replacing wood products with hemp, kenaf, and other high-fiber plants: "Where will we grow all these exotic, annual, monoculture farm crops, enough to provide 300 million tons of paper per year? Unfortunately, we would have to grow them where we could be growing trees.

"It's not as if there is a huge surplus of extra land in the world. Birds and squirrels prefer trees to hemp farms. The plain fact is, if you don't use wood to make paper, there is less reason to grow trees."

Steve Shelley, regional botanist for the Northern Rockies Region of the U.S. Forest Service, agrees that "habitat conversion" of forests or disappearing grasslands to hemp farms might be ecologically destructive.

Hemp advocates counter that hemp could replace not just trees and prairie wilderness, but traditional, over-produced, subsidized agricultural land. The plant also grows in hostile lands unfit for other crops; and, in their vision, hemp would replace not just trees but other fiber, food, petroleum and chemical industries.

"Hemp may have some very good commercial uses," says Charles Keegan, an economist at the University of Montana. But he raises questions about claims that hemp produces more fiber than trees, measured in cubic feet of fiber per acre per year.

Economic and legal issues aside, hemp technologies, stalled on this continent for a half-century, to many still seem guaranteed at least a growing niche in the quest for a sustainable future.

Smith currently must import legal, drug-free hemp from Hungary for Blue Heron Hemp, her outdoor-gear manufacturing business. But British Columbia and North Dakota, among others, have passed laws investigating the viability of hemp as an industrial crop, so the big ball of hemp has apparently begun rolling past the headshops and into serious legal and scientific circles.

Smith says that hemp can be a source for over 25,000 uses -- in other words, almost everything. It may not save the world, but its utility, and the public's awareness is on the rise. "You don't have to cut all the trees," says Smith. "There is another way."

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