U.S. Hemp Market Is Starting to Smoke


Industrial hemp can help lift you up in the morning, give your dog the warm fuzzies, help you get a good night’s sleep and even give your baby some TLC--without the THC.

The fashion and food industries have plenty of uses for hemp, but the fibrous plant gets a bad rap because of its cousin, marijuana. Both are members of the same species, Cannabis sativa; the difference is that industrial hemp contains only minute amounts of the psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol.

Companies big and small, well-known and obscure are using hemp in everything from gourmet coffees to mattresses and baby jumpers.


Daimler-Benz is using hemp in its dashboards and interior door panels. Armani is making hemp jeans. Even Disney has sold hats made of the stuff.

The plant is being touted for everything from salad oil to fuel oil, paper to plastic.

“Anything that can be made from a hydrocarbon can be made from a carbohydrate,” said Joe Hickey, executive director of the Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative Assn.

“I can’t believe we’re not already growing it,” said Belinda Bothman, general manager of Edgemont Yarn Service Inc. in Maysville, Ky., which is exploring weaving hemp into its yarns. “I was looking for something new and exciting to do from here.”

Hemp is expensive to come by because, like pot, it’s illegal to grow in this country. Police say it looks so much like marijuana that it would be used to hide the pot crops.

For now, U.S. companies are importing hemp fiber, oils and seeds--boiled to sterility under the watchful eye of the Drug Enforcement Administration--from China and Europe. But the supply may be moving a little closer to the demand.

The Navajo Nation is considering using its sovereign status to legalize hemp production as a source of income, and several state legislatures are discussing similar measures.

Some estimate the hemp retail market at $100 million a year worldwide.

“I think the demand has been a combination of a certain vogue perception of hemp. But at the same time, people can feel really good about this vogue because it’s eco-materials we’re talking about here,” said David R. Gould, president of Hemp Textiles International Corp. in Bellingham, Wash.

Gould’s company has supplied hemp yarn and fabric to the likes of Adidas, Pierre Cardin and Ralph Lauren. And he said other clothiers are looking to follow.

Gould said, “1997 has really been a watershed year in terms of mainstream companies getting involved and getting geared up to introduce hemp lines.”

Crown City Mattress of San Gabriel is putting hemp into about 3% of this year’s production of mattresses and futons. Vice president Steve Carwile said the product is durable, mold-resistant and just appeals to his eco-conscious clientele.

He said the family-owned business isn’t just looking to cash in on the marijuana mystique.

“About 15 years ago, we used to have a slogan that said, ‘The happy mattress manufacturer,’ ” he said. “But we don’t want to do that on this one.”

Interface Inc. of Atlanta, a big carpet tile manufacturer, is testing hemp as part of company owner Ray Anderson’s quest to make all of Interface’s products recyclable by 2000, said Ray Berard, vice president of technology.

“He wants the company to be sustainable, that is, not dependent on oil or other materials,” Berard said.

Others are using the controversy to their advantage.

There’s a line of hats from New Jersey called Headcase with labels warning buyers to “not smoke this cap.” Sharon’s Finest of Santa Rosa, Calif., markets Hemp Rella cheeses and a Hempeh Burger that it calls “deliciously legal.”

George Co. of San Francisco has doggie sweaters and beds made of hemp.

And Hempfields Natural Goods of Surprise Valley, Calif., recently introduced three varieties of organic coffee mixed with roasted hemp seeds. Bruce Klassen, a co-owner, said the seeds give the coffee a nutty flavor, while the hemp oil reduces acidity.

“You don’t have the effects of acid stomach or heartburn . . . that you would get from a normal coffee,” he said.

Hemp even turned up recently in a Maryland-brewed boutique beer. Don Wirtshafter’s Ohio Hempery in Guysville supplies all the seeds for Hempen Ale, as well as for Hempfields’ coffees.

Wirtshafter said he shipped 44,000 pounds of hemp seeds--or one container--to Hempfields in one month. That’s about what the annual U.S. seed consumption was a couple of years ago, he said.

“Our strategy is we’re setting up the infrastructure of an industry, so that when our local farmers are able to grow hemp, there’ll be a place for them to sell it,” said Wirtshafter, whose mail order company markets the hemp baby jumper and blankets.