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The buzz on hemp

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The big pot bust in Barrie brings back heady memories. Lazy August
afternoons. Bees abuzzin.' Crows cawing on a soft breeze.

My old man checking the cannabis crop.

"Lookit how tall it is," he would say, head back in wonder.

It was 10, 12 feet high. The corn no longer hid it.

The OPP cruised by regularly, peering in from Talbot Rd.

"The cops were really suspicious," my dad chuckles down the line from Maple
Manor, in Tillsonburg.

In 1994, he had North America's first experimental licence to grow cannabis,
on 10 acres of the family tobacco farm.

It drew many curious people to skulk in the treelines.

Sometimes, my dad found plants missing.

One thief left a bottle of wine in the mailbox, apparently in gratitude for
the juiciest cannabis plant he'd ever stolen.

"The wine was really good," my dad says. "But I don't think he got much out
of that plant."

Dad's strain of cannabis, you see, took you no higher than lawn grass.

It had the same leaf, the same weedy smell, but only a trace of narcotic.
Your lungs collapsed long before you got a buzz.

It was industrial hemp, outlawed with the rest of the cannabis family in
North America since Reefer Madness days.

Dad got nearly as much publicity as the Barrie bust. The L.A. Times came to
call. There was a TV feature, complete with The Ballad of Joe Strobel.

The CBC report of the harvest showed dad on his tractor pulling a hay mower,
then panned to an OPP cruiser poised mid-field.

Reporters had to swear to keep the location secret, though any local would
draw you a map.

The harvested bales were stored in secret, my dad said, though frankly, they
were piled in the neighbour's garage.

"People flat-out didn't understand the difference," says Geof Kime, 37, an
engineer who was dad's hemp partner. "I tried to explain marijuana and our
hemp as Great Dane and Chihuahua. They're both dogs, but not the same at

Still, in those days, every time he or my pop tried to pitch hemp for paper,
or clothing, or garden mulch, or horse bedding, or concrete filler, or fence
posts, or whatever, the comeback was usually: "Yeah, but can ya smoke it?"

It was, says Kime, "the giggle factor."

So, as cops stare agog at the former brewery in Barrie, where has hemp come
since that summer on the old farm?

Well, a series of strokes took my old man out of the movement. Any hemp
crusader knows his name. Any marijuana crusader, too, though he politely
steered clear of the dope side.

The Canadian hemp business peaked at nearly 700 licences in 1998, after the
feds saw the sky didn't fall when my dad grew his impotent pot.

But growers' ranks dwindled to 82 by 2002, 16 in Ontario.

Firms like Hempola prosper. They make oil products and food, which are
easily processed with seed machinery.

But clothing makers can't compete with the cheap labour of China and other
hemp powers.

And infrastructure hasn't kept up with demand for such things as fibre for
car door panels. That's the kind of hemp product made by Kime's Hempline
Inc., out of Delaware, up the road from Tillsonburg.

Big production takes big dough. "The (hemp fibre) industry is ready to go,"
says Kime. "Capital is the missing ingredient."

Hemp, however, is happenin' on Queen St. W., at the Friendly Stranger
Cannabis Culture Shop.

"You're Joe Strobel's son?" says owner Robin Ellins, 37, with some

The front of his place looks like The Gap. Walls covered in groovy dress
shirts, jackets and jeans. Wallets and belts of hemp. Soaps, candles, power
bars, hairwax, lip balm, soda pop, potato chips. He doesn't carry hemp "ice
cream" but you can buy it at supermarkets.

In back, hemp's flip side: Pipes, paper, other paraphernalia.

$8.8 billion underground

How 'bout that big bust, Robin?

"Funny it was in a brewery that closed down. Didn't 400 people get laid off?
You could have given them new jobs" in the grow operation.

"Marijuana is an $8.8-billion underground economy. It's an industry dying to
be legitimate. The general public now knows pot is less harmful than alcohol
and tobacco.

"And it's easy to regulate: Permits for growers and retailers, inspections,
age limits, taxation. What's the problem?"

I dunno, Robin, ask my dad. Being a hemp warrior is never easy.

Pubdate: Tuesday, January 13, 2004
Source: Toronto Sun (CN ON)
Contact: editor@sunpub.com
Website: Homeless man who helped stranded motorist buys home with money from fundraiser
Author: Mike Strobel