Promoters of a hemp industry are holding their breath for Government
permission to sow their first crops next spring.

Not that deep inhalations will produce any illegal "highs," they are keen
to assure the public.

Although hemp is of the same species as cannabis sativa or marijuana,
illicit pot smokers would scoff at cannabis with a strength of anything
less than about 5 per cent THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), compared with a
limit of about 0.35 per cent likely to be set for industrial hemp.

Yet New Zealand is one of the few countries still to bury lingering
suspicions of a link between hemp and wacky baccy and allow a potentially
lucrative industry in innocuous products to take root.

These fears have mainly been laid to rest, even among the police, to a
point where the Government seems likely to support trial plantings under
strict conditions.

But officials remain super cautious, with biosecurity concerns holding up
the approval of standards for importing hemp seed for three more months,
raising doubt whether trials will begin this year.

What is hemp?

Hemp is a herbaceous annual plant, high in fibre, which grows phenomenally

Its use in a wide range of products from rope to textiles and oils predates
written history, according to a definitive report in 1999 by Lincoln
University organic horticultural consultant Charles Merfield.

It is of the same species as marijuana, and because of that was declared
illegal in the United States and many other countries from the 1930s on.

But scientists are satisfied that the plant has no psychoactive properties
at THC levels below 1 per cent.

Hemp remained legal throughout much of Asia and in some European countries,
and even the United States has left New Zealand behind by allowing it to be
grown again.

What is its history?

Early Chinese writings tell of hemp being used to make cloth almost 5000
years ago.

After Spanish explorers brought it to the West in the 16th century, it
became widely used in making rope and paper. British sea power was based on
hemp as well as timber, with ships requiring many tonnes for their ropes
and sails.

Wars were fought over its supply, says Mr Merfield, but it began to be
replaced by cheaper fibres such as jute in the early 1800s, and later by
wood pulp in paper manufacturing.

The rise of petrochemical industries in the 20th century brought further
competition, to the point where outlawing it made little economic impact.

What is the point of reviving hemp if it was fading out anyway before it
was made illegal?

Hemp is touted as a renewable and environmentally benign product.

But Mr Merfield says a number of claims about its environmental benefits do
not stand up as it can be grown only on fertile and generally flat land and
needs considerable attention throughout its cycle.

He says hemp is no substitute for trees to address erosion problems on
hilly terrain.

But he acknowledges that it requires considerably fewer pesticides and
herbicides than other crops such as cotton, and can improve soil structure.

At the same time, it has not been tested for its potential to become a weed.

Two immediate uses of hemp in New Zealand are as building insulation
material and as a health food oil rich in omega-3, essential fatty acids
needed for brain development, especially in foetuses and newborn infants.

There are already industries in Nelson and Canterbury that are counting on
homegrown hemp to develop lucrative export markets.

It is also being promoted as a potential vehicle for the Government's
regional development drive and is strongly supported by Federated Farmers'
grains council.

Hemp Industries Association chairman Mac McIntosh, who acknowledges there
are some zealots who tend to over-promote the plant, says the crop has
possibilities for supplanting the illicit cannabis industry in regions such
as Northland.

Even Mercedes-Benz in Germany is understood to use hemp for vehicle interiors.

And Green MP Nandor Tanczos is not the only politician who wears hemp
clothing. British Conservative Party leader William Hague reputedly has
$1400 shoes threaded with the ubiquitous substance.

What is happening in other countries?

About 12,000ha are under cultivation under new schemes in Canada and
Britain, where farmers are subsidised to grow hemp.

Trials are also under way in Hawaii, with others likely to follow soon on
the United States mainland.

Australian growers have been busy establishing an industry since 1991,
although they still have to import large quantities of seedstock from
European countries such as France.

Why is hemp still illegal in New Zealand?

Finished hemp products, about $1 million worth of which are imported each
year by the likes of the Body Shop and marijuana paraphernalia outlets, are
not illegal.

But the raw plant material is in the same category of class C controlled
drugs as marijuana, and as such can be grown only under licence from the
Health Ministry.

The hemp industry had high hopes of a breakthrough in 1997, when senior
Health Ministry official Dr Bob Boyd recommended that a moratorium on
applications for cultivating the plant be lifted to allow research trials.

Only two licences had been granted previously, both to Crown-owned research
establishments contracted by the police to investigate ways to control
illicit crops.

But the National Government rejected Dr Boyd's recommendation because of
police concern that hemp cultivation might be used as a cover for its more
potent and lucrative cousin.

Mr Merfield has rejected this as "patently absurd," saying hemp would
render marijuana virtually impotent through cross-pollination, if the two
crops were near each other.

A prized marijuana crop would become very low grade and full of seeds,
meaning no one would want to smoke it.

Police officials involved in an interagency working party were unavailable
yesterday, but Green Party co-leader Rod Donald says he believes they have
become more enthusiastic about hemp since having this pointed out to them.

Mr McIntosh, who emphasises he is not at liberty to comment on his
industry's chances of getting trials under way this year, notes that
illegal growers in Canada were strongly opposed to a hemp industry for fear
of having their own crops neutralised.

What are the next steps towards making it legal?

The Health Ministry has, in fact, lifted its moratorium on granting
licences, but a regime needs to be put in place for controlling trials
before it is prepared to approve any.

Hemp will remain a controlled substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act, so
it will still be illegal to grow it without a licence.

Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry officials are still working on an
import standard for hemp seed, likely to come from Australia.

Environmental Science and Research Ltd also needs a few more weeks to
finalise sampling and testing guidelines.

Growers involved in trials will be expected to pay for sampling, which will
be required when plants are approaching maturity, to ensure their THC
levels remain low.

Crops will also have to be fenced and only very limited land areas will be
allowed to be sown.

The hemp industry is also recommending that members establish partnerships
with reputable and supportive research institutes such as the Foundation
for Arable Research, an organisation funded by levies on grain farmers.

What about public attitudes to hemp?

Mr McIntosh acknowledges these are among the industry's biggest challenges,
and one reason why he has not been as impatient as some to get cracking.

"We need the public with us on this one," he says.

"We need to get factual information out to people so they are not worried
about their kids stealing this stuff and getting into trouble on their way
to school."

A former naval technician, diver and farmer, Mr McIntosh has spent 11 years
trying to destigmatise hemp.

He recalls that the first time he approached a Government department, "they
thought I was a dope grower ringing up to make my crop better."

He says he has never grown hemp, of whatever strength, and does not smoke

Asked whether he ever did in the past, his only comment is: "I am a
52-year-old adult living in New Zealand. I have been around."

He acknowledges that the association between hemp and stronger marijuana
might retain an allure for some promoters of a new industry, but insists
most are serious about wanting to add a new string to the country's
economic bow.

What if the trials aren't ready to start this year?

The Greens' Mr Donald says there is real concern that some would-be
industry players might give up or go overseas.

He points to Nelson-based New Wool Products, which imports hemp from China
to add to wool for a building insulation product said to have the same
thermal qualities as fibreglass material but greater sound-suppressing

Company head Lindsay Newton could not be contacted, but Mr Donald said he
understood he was "tempted to pick up his sticks and move to China" if he
could not secure a hemp supply here.

Pubdate: Wed, 28 Mar 2001
Source: New Zealand Herald (New Zealand)
Copyright: 2001 New Zealand Herald
Address: PO Box 32, Auckland, New Zealand
Fax: (09) 373-6421