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Photograph by Larry Duprey

Boxing for Hemp: HIA members take their case to Barbara Boxer. L-R: Eric Rothenberg, Lenda Hand, Steve Levine, Chris Conrad, Candi Penn, Kimberly Kelly, Senator Barbara Boxer, Michael Norbury, Mari Kane, Gustavo Alcantar, Mikki Norris, David Bronner, and Rebecca Burgess.

Hempsters Go to Washington

Promoting the industrial weed to a war-addled Congress

By Mari Kane

I am standing at the gate in SFO waiting to board an 8am flight to Washington, D.C., when I spy a mousy-looking brunette in a black suit making her way through the crowd. "Why, it's our own Senator Feinstein," I say as I pull out my video camera and zoom in while calling out, "Senator Feinstein!"

She whips around, and the crowd comes alive with well-wishers who say, "We'll see you there!" Seeing the senator in Washington is my hope too, since my mission on this trip is to lobby my representatives on behalf of industrial hemp and to educate them about what hemp is. What it isn't is a drug.

Low-THC industrial hemp is grown in 31 countries. The United States remains the only developed nation to prohibit its cultivation. While both marijuana and hemp come from the same plant species--Cannabis sativa--hemp is to pot as a terrier is to a pit bull. Both are dogs, albeit with very different bites, but they are nonetheless seen by the same veterinarian.

Hemp remains under the control of the Drug Enforcement Agency, which refuses to acknowledge the difference between the plants. Thus hemp is viewed as a law-enforcement problem rather than the farming issue it is.

Washington's weather on Oct. 2 is sunny, hot, and running about 100 percent humidity. Even hemp clothes don't breathe enough to wick the sweat away. I am with members of the Hemp Industries Association, which is holding its ninth annual convention here. Armed with talking points and positive attitudes, hempsters representing 25 companies from 13 states and Canada fan out over three congressional office buildings to do battle.

The California contingent's first appointment is with my fellow flyer Dianne Feinstein, but since the senator is preoccupied with the Iraq resolution, we are given to her agricultural aid instead. While waiting, I request that my opinion on Iraq be noted and when the secretary asks how I vote, I sardonically reply, "Er, that would be a no. My zip is 95436."

A warm sense of political entitlement envelopes me. It is the job of these people to listen to their constituents, even if our opinions fall on deaf ears: Feinstein, within a week, will vote in favor of the president's drastic Iraq resolution.

Feinstein's aide Michael Buchwald ushers us into a small conference room. Buchwald is polite and attentive while 12 hempsters lay the issue out for him. The issue at hand is getting hemp out from under the thumb of the DEA. To accomplish that, we now have something previously unheard of: a Senate bill.

Senator Kent Conrad, D-N.D. has drafted a bill that would put control of hemp squarely in the hands of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Transferring jurisdiction over hemp is the HIA's new push, and they are quietly gathering support in advance of the bill's introduction next year. Buchwald promises to discuss the matter with the senator.

The next stop is Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey. She too is out, but her ag aide, Kristin Mastromarino, meets with us. This meeting is attended by myself, HIA executive director Candi Penn of Occidental, San Rafael-based Rebecca Burgess of Loom-in-Essence, and Gustavo Alcantar from Swirlspace in San Francisco.

We know Woolsey knows about hemp--she represents one of the most hemp-intensive counties in California--but we are slightly taken aback when Mastromarino innocently asks, "What exactly is the difference between the plants?" It's time for Hemp 101. She listens intently and suggests we find a representative on the House Agriculture Committee to present a co-resolution. As it happens, Sonoma County Congressman Mike Thompson sits on the committee, and he will become the HIA's next best friend.

Next I accompany Corrine Turner to the office of Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, my family's home state. Turner speaks eloquently on hemp's agricultural uses with legislative assistant Kim Love, who seems genuinely interested in Michigan's hemp history.

We tell her how the state became a vast hemp laboratory for Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, who experimented with the raw material for use in car bodies and as an energy source, respectively. There is no Love lost during this meeting; Stabenow's aide appears to get it.

At 3 o'clock we're off to tea. Literally. Senator Barbara Boxer holds "tea" at 3pm every Wednesday, when she greets visitors and takes pictures with them. Boxer lays out her position on the Iraq issue: pro-inspection, prodiplomacy, and violence as a last means.

We line up for a picture with the senator, and as the 12 of us gather, I go for one side of her while Penn takes the other, and we each begin probing the senatorial mind.

Cocktail hour finds the HIA members sipping beers at a sidewalk bar when someone says, "Isn't that Ralph Nader?" Sure enough, the tall guy is standing on the opposite corner in front of the Postal Museum, and I gamely say, "I'll go get him."

I hoof it across the street as he is waving down a cab and yell, "Hey, Ralph! I'm from the Hemp Industries Association, and we're having our convention here!" Nader replies that he knew the hemp people were in town, but, no, he doesn't have time for a drink.

I respond, "We have a bill now by Senator Conrad to transfer hemp from the DEA to the Ag Department and we need your help." Nader listens to my through-the-window pitch. "Will you help us, Ralph?" I plead. "Yeah," he replies, "send me something on it."

Overall, HIA members are pleased with their efforts and promise a repeat performance. "Realizing that there were ears and eyes to hear and see our issue was exhilarating," enthuses Penn. "I'll definitely go back!"

I'll go back too, since nothing makes me feel more politically potent than showing up at my representative's office door and insisting on having my grievances heard. Lobbying is a cultural cross between reality TV, horse racing, and a town-hall meeting. Far above protesting, letter writing, and voting, I find congressional lobbying to be the highest level of political activism a citizen can perform, short of seeing the president, and nothing makes me feel more like an American.

It sure beats waving a flag.

Mari Kane is an HIA advisory board member and the former publisher of HempWorld and Hemp Pages. She can be reached at [email protected]

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From the October 24-30, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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