Hemp in California: Could marijuana’s mellow cousin be the next environmental and economic boon?

The 40 or so people gathered in conference room 502B at Los Angeles Convention Center came from starkly different backgrounds.

They included a San Joaquin Valley farmer, a Huntington Beach restaurateur, a Paramount fabric importer and a Denver attorney. Some were in suits and some were in shorts.

But as they networked and shared stories, the depth of their common commercial passion extended to the very fiber of the hemp business cards they exchanged.

Mention hemp to friends over dinner, and you might get stoner jokes from folks who see hemp as just another form of pot. Or you could arouse a zealot who’s convinced hemp is a miracle plant that can save the planet, if only The Man would stop suppressing the truth.

Check out even more news and information in our special report on cannabis and the environment.

Those divergent views are about to be tested anew in California.

Marijuana got all the attention last year when voters approved a landmark ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana. But buried in the last few pages of the lengthy measure was less noticed language legalizing industrial hemp production.

Shami Coleman, co-owner of Colorado Cultivars Hemp Farm, brings in a load of hemp that was harvested on Sept. 5 in Eaton, Colo. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

It’s been a slow, low-profile roll out. But a new state regulatory panel has begun meeting to hammer out a path for farmers to start growing the first legal hemp in California in 80 years; a California Hemp Association is forming, with a retired Apple executive at the helm; and a few dozen aspiring “hempsters” from around the globe paid $299 and descended on Room 502B at the L.A. Convention Center on Sept. 13 to attend a Hemp MBA in a Day workshop during the Cannabis World Congress & Business Exposition.

The entrepreneurs want to be part of California’s emerging legal cannabis industry, though most have no interest in helping anyone get high.

Some want to grow hemp here, lured by the promise of a potentially valuable crop that requires almost no pesticides and absorbs enough atmospheric carbon it could possibly qualify for state tax credits.

Others want to buy California-grown hemp and use it to make energy-efficient construction materials, durable fabrics, nutritional foods and biodegradable plastics.

“We’ve got a billion-dollar industry, at a minimum, and probably tens of thousands of jobs,” said Wayne Richmond, the ex-Apple executive who now heads…

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