The hardy, industrial cannabis hemp plant has a long history of taking the rap for a close relative.

"It's always carried a negative stigma, but it has nothing to do with marijuana," said Marianne Smith, owner of Blue Heron Hemp, a business that makes purses, wallets and small packs from hemp imported from Europe.

On Saturday, Smith will help celebrate the virtues of the illegal plant and help educate the public about the plant's history as one of the organizers of the fifth annual Missoula Hempfest at Caras Park.

"We grew it in this country legally up until the 1930s, and it was a cash crop used mainly for twine, rope and paper," Smith said. But it fell from government's graces, she said, because of negative propaganda pumped out, in part, by politicians and large corporations, which wanted to promote their nylon products, and newspaper mogul Randolph Hearst, who wanted to make paper and profits from his large timber holdings.

Hemp became a target because it is versatile, replenishable, easy to grow and posed a serious financial threat to other industries, Smith said.

Although marijuana and hemp are from the same family, the plants look differently and are grown differently.

Marijuana growers aim to have a bushy plant, while hemp growers want to harvest the fibers from a clean, strong stalk, Smith said. "You can't even grow the two plants near each other or they will cross pollinate," she said. "If the plants do commingle, farmers will end up with agricultural hemp that has a weak stalk, which won't help them because it is the stalk that it is harvested for."

On Saturday, several other Missoula businesses will be on hand at the festival, as well as dozens of hemp-product vendors who want to sell their goods and advocate for the federal government to lift its prohibition of industrial hemp cultivation.

During the 1999 Montana Legislative session, representatives from the Montana Grain Growers Association and the Montana Farm Bureau Federation supported a pro-hemp resolution with a 95-4 vote.

Supporters of hemp claim the plant would thrive well in Montana's climate, doesn't require the use of herbicides and pesticides, and grows well in rotation with wheat and barley. Hemp is estimated to return between $100 and $500 per acre, depending on end-use and processing, Smith said.

"People don't realize hemp is not marijuana - I don't think people understand that," said Craig Shannon, a Missoula criminal defense attorney and one of the sponsors of the event. "When I found out what hemp is, I realized it could be a good product for building, for making paper and clothing. … Hemp is being accused of something it didn't do. It's not guilty. It's an underdog and I want to support it."

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 and by e-mail at

If you're interested

The fifth annual Missoula Hempfest and Alternative Living Faire will take place noon-10:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 16, at Caras Park. The event will include speakers advocating the legalization of industrial hemp, and hemp-made products such as clothing, drinks and food will be for sale. Live music will be provided by local bands Abendego, Riff Rats, Levitators, Stash and The Marathon Dance Band.

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