Hemp, hemp hooray

There was once a strain of cannabis sativa – the industrial, not smokable, variety of hemp – named Early Michigan. That was long before hemp, and the marijuana it’s related to, became illegal in this country.

Today, even though industrial hemp hasn’t yet regained its status as a legal crop, you could say hemp is growing again in Michigan.

But you don’t have to tell that to five hemp business owners already in the Detroit area. These young, optimistic, environmental entrepreneurs are banking on the resurgence of industrial hemp, often referred to as "the miracle plant."

If James Millard had remained in his native England, he could’ve been a hemp farmer – the United Kingdom legalized hemp more than six years ago. Instead, his financial seeds are sown in Pure Productions, an all-hemp store in Ann Arbor. He sells hemp sweaters, shoes, jeans, skirts, twine, purses and more. Business is good at the store’s downtown location, but Millard tends to sell more hemp products from the tiny kiosk he rents at Ann Arbor’s Briarwood Mall.

"We wanted to expand out as far as we could to reach the public," he explains. At the mall thousands of people go by, and many pick up some of Millard’s literature about industrial hemp. His goal, he says, is not to make a comfortable living selling hemp jeans, but to let everybody know about hemp.

That’s because he’s aghast at the American sentiment toward hemp.

"People don’t take hempsters seriously because they always think there is a hidden agenda," Millard notes. "Like we’re trying to legalize hemp because we want to smoke cannabis. That is not why I want to legalize hemp. I want to legalize hemp because I don’t want to see all the trees cut down."

Environmentalism is close to the heart for many hempsters, such as Matt Cyrulnik, 24. He founded Eco-Sense, a hemp product business, after having represented hemp companies to retailers across the country since he was 17.

A vegetarian with dreadlocks, Cyrulnik began creating hemp lotions and potions in his kitchen a few years ago. "I was working so hard selling other people’s stuff, I just decided to see what I could do with hemp," he remembers. He eventually came up with his own line of herbal products including a massage oil, anti-fungal cream, an anti-inflammatory salve, and his favorite, Bug Juice, a healthy alternative to chemical-laden bug repellents.

Cyrulnik’s recipes were recently picked up by the health food giant, Whole Foods, and his products can also be found at stores such as Good Food Co., Kalamazoo Food Co-op, and Health Foods of Rochester.

"People keep asking when (the hemp revolution) is going to happen," says Cyrulnik. "It is happening today."

And that revolution has all the hallmarks of a consumer revolution, if the variety of hemp products available is anything to go by.

In Beth Breidenstein’s case, hemp makes an excellent textile. She started Spiral Clothing, a hemp clothing business, in 1995. From her home base in Detroit’s Cass Corridor, Breidenstein has been creating fashions ranging from functional to folksy, all made from hemp fabric. Her designs include a barn jacket, dresses and a business clothing line.

The business name comes from Breidenstein’s belief in "what goes around, comes around" – like hemp’s position in the United States since the Constitution was first drafted on a sheet of hemp paper.

Spiral Clothing reflects Breidenstein’s personal ethics, which is why she consistently endorses progressive working conditions that include on-site child care and profit sharing for employees.

"I want my company to reflect the people who work for it," she says, "and I want people to buy my clothes because they like my work ethics." From the looks of it, they also like the clothing’s styles and construction.

One of Breidenstein’s biggest business challenges right now is to make her clothing more affordable. Fortunately, that day might be near, as more Canadian hemp is soon to be available.

Canadian farmers will begin planting their second season of hemp this spring. In 1997, after five years of testing and research, Canada re-legalized industrial hemp after a 50-year hiatus.

"Canada’s hemp will be great for Detroit," Breidenstein says. "It is so expensive to import hemp from overseas."

Despite their price, hemp products are making a small dent in the market. Just ask Julie Cummings, who works out of her Shelby Township home to supply more than 150 retailers with hemp products from 10 different companies.

"Hemp is on the verge," she says. "There are a lot of store owners wondering what this plant can do for them and their customers."

Through her monthly newsletter, Hemp News, Cummings keeps her clients updated on new products and issues surrounding the plant’s relegalization. "Hemp can’t remain a political prisoner," she says.

But regardless of political leanings, money still talks. And in this case, consumer demand is crucial to hemp’s eventual success, suggests Tim Neal, co-founder of Great Lakes Hemp.

"Not until consumers consciously choose an eco-friendly alternative will the corporate world change the status quo and release us from this ecological and economic stranglehold," Neal says.

In the meantime, he is certainly not waiting for hemp to become relegalized in the United States. Since 1997, Great Lakes Hemp has distributed hemp products from around the world, including an environmentally friendly bike chain oil and an all-purpose cleaner.

When not making contacts and sales, Neal searches for new and unusual hemp products and businesses.

"Great Lakes Hemp wants to be able to provide an Earth-friendly alternative to almost anything you can imagine," he says. "Hemp is the plant to help us do it."

According to Neal, almost everything made of wood could use hemp instead. And that’s just for starters. Car parts, building materials, the list goes on.

"In 1938, Popular Mechanics called hemp a billion-dollar crop with over 26,000 uses," Neal says. "Think of the possibilities now!"

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