By Alfa · Feb 7, 2005 ·
  1. Alfa

    Filled with men in business suits on mobile phones and featuring
    seminars on credit sales and production relocation, the international
    hemp fair has left behind its hippie image.

    Some 16,000 visitors were expected between Friday and Sunday at the
    8th Highlife Hemp Fair - a mix between a motor show and an
    agricultural exhibition with even bikini-clad women distributing
    company prospectuses.

    However, any visitor spending some time at the show eventually knows
    what it means to be a "passive smoker".

    Hemp is a plant which can be used to make rope and rough cloth but
    also the drug cannabis.

    With 120 stands hired at 150 euros (US$194) per square meter, spread
    over 12,000 meters (130,000 square feet) in the Utrecht Exhibition
    Center and equipped with high-speed Internet access, the hemp fair
    reflects the changed nature of an industry which has become of one the
    new growth areas of the Dutch economy.

    The hemp industry has an estimated turnover of between five to 10
    billion euros (US$6.4-13 billion) per year, or one to two percent of
    Dutch GDP, way in front of the high profile tulip and cut flower industry.

    However some visitors are nostalgic for the old style hemp

    "Eight years ago in Nijmegen, we had tressel tables, it was like a
    market," said Andre Beckers, responsible for communication at the hemp

    "It was more fun", admitted a 40-year-old who is a lawyer specialized
    in the rights of "coffee shops", the cafes in the Netherlands which
    are allowed to sell limited amounts of cannabis.

    Like a number of exhibitors and visitors, the organizer of the fair,
    Boy Ramsahai, wears a stripped suit and is never off his mobile phone.

    He is the head of a commercial empire which began with the Dutch
    magazine "Highlife", created about 15 years ago and devoted to
    cannabis culture. He also publishes "Soft Secret" a free magazine
    published in French, English and Spanish.

    Some of the exhibitors have to walk a fine line with national laws
    which prohibit the growing of hemp.

    "In the United States, 40 percent of our buyers grow cannabis and 60
    percent orchids or aromatic plants. In Canada it's the reverse," said
    Byron Sheppard, who came from British Columbia in Canada to present
    his fully automated plant boxes for indoor production.

    "When we participate in these exhibitions in the United States,
    obviously we put flowers in our boxes. But the connoisseurs know that
    you can grow other things apart from roses and tomatoes," Sheppard

    The Dutch, which have a long tradition of crossbreeding plants and
    production in greenhouses, are now focussed on the improvement of
    seeds. But local production of hemp was banned seven years ago and is
    now undertaken in Switzerland, Spain or Africa.

    Officially, the Dutch businesses only import and export the seeds and
    make the production materials - dryers, machines to roll joints
    (cannabis cigarettes), watering and filtration systems, which are sold
    all over the world.

    However for the amateurs, who have come from around the world, this
    year's hemp fair may be a disappointment: the distribution of free
    samples has been banned after the mayor of Utrecht threatened to close
    down the fair.

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