NEWS

THE STAR TRIBUNE
St. Paul, Minnesota
October 16, 1999

In Canada, can hemp live up to the hype

By Bob von Sternberg

During the summer just past, the tabletop-flat countryside of southern Ontario was bursting with towering, spike-leafed plants, making it look for all the world like the biggest, most brazen pot farm in North America. It's the second year of Canada's pioneering attempt to see whether industria  hemp -- marijuana's genetic cousin -- can become a lucrative new crop for its struggling farmers.

And if Gov. Jesse Ventura gets his way, that scene will be re-created in Minnesota. Ventura has asked the federal government to give Minnesota the green light to become the first state where industrial hemp could be legally grown.

"It's ridiculous that we're not expanding something that could be of tremendous value to society," Ventura said in an interview. "It's a great alternative product that can do things so much better than what we use now."

But an examination of the Canadian hemp industry's brief record reveals the fact that the experience hasn't lived up to the hype that preceded legalization.

Despite opponents' warnings that growing hemp would spark an explosion in growing still-illegal marijuana, Canadian officials say that simply hasn't happened. And even though hemp's advocates predicted the new crop could become the economic salvation for farmers, that also hasn't happened. Not yet, anyway.

"Everyone thought this would be a godsend, but it hasn't worked out that way," said Bob L'Ecuyer, general manager of Kenex Ltd., the Chatham, Ontario, firm that is Canada's biggest hemp operation. "People go into this thinking it's the best thing since sliced bread, but if you've got no one to sell to, it's not worth anything."

Hemp farmers quickly discovered it's not enough to grow a new crop that has remarkably diverse uses if markets and a processing  infrastructure don't exist -- a reality that has not been lost on Minnesota officials.

"Once you grow it, where is it going to go?" asked Kevin Edberg, head of marketing for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. "The processing infrastructure all has to be built from scratch.  That's its Achilles' heel, but also an opportunity." 

Markets for hemp don't exist for the simple reason that during most of the 20th century, it was illegal to grow, sell or even possess it in Canada and the United States.

In the grip of the "reefer madness" days of the Depression, the U.S. government banned the cultivation of cannabis in 1937; Canadian officials followed suit a year later.

But neither country made a distinction between marijuana and industrial hemp. They are virtually indistinguishable varieties of cannabis except for their tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content, the component that produces a dope smoker's high. While marijuana contains THC levels as high as 20 percent, industrial hemp normally has far less than 1 percent. A person is as likely to get high by smoking hemp as by smoking the newsprint this story is printed on. 

In other words, rope -- not dope, as hemp advocates are fond of saying.

Many uses

Hemp has a storied history, going back more than 8,000 years, when it was first cultivated. It has been used to make as many as 25,000 products, turned into everything from rope and ships' sails to painters' canvasses and paper. The first pair of Levi's jeans was made from hemp; so was (apocryphally) the first U.S. flag sewn by Betsy Ross and the parchment on which the U.S. Constitution was printed.

Hemp has been legally grown throughout Europe for years, and Canadian agricultural officials  estimate the world market to be as much as $200 million a year. Contemporary uses include everything from cosmetics to car door panels. 

The push to legalize the plant developed during the '70s as something of a sideline to the push to legalize smokable marijuana, but in recent years the effort has been pushed hardest by farm advocates seeking to diversify farmers' crop mixes -- which has made legislators in both Canada and the United States more receptive to the idea.

Ventura said he became interested in hemp during his days as a talk-radio host, when hemp advocates made their pitch to him, filling his mailbox with such hemp-based products as paper and clothing. He endorsed the plant's legalization during his gubernatorial campaign last year and kept pushing once in office.

"Once I was governor, I looked at the state's agricultural situation and all the problems farmers are having," he said. "With production going down the tubes, they need the ability to diversify the crops they plant."

That was the rationale offered by Canadian farmers when they began their campaign on behalf of hemp in the early 1990s. The effort was pioneered by Geof Kime, an Ontario farmer who wrangled permission from the government to plant test plots starting in 1994 with the hope of "reviving a sustainable, job-creating crop that could be grown without pesticides."

He did exactly that, although it took four years of lobbying to persuade federal officials to legalize hemp. When they did so, they erected a dense regulatory web to ensure that hemp growing didn't spawn an illicit marijuana industry.

All hemp farmers are required to undergo a criminal-records check, and officials of Health Canada, the federal health department, decided that the maximum allowable THC concentration in hemp would be 0.3 percent. Anything above that is illegal; the department conducts random checks of THC levels, as do Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers.

"Occasionally people have tried to get around the THC levels, but it hasn't been a huge problem," said Health Canada spokesman Eric Morin. During the first two growing seasons, there have been so few busts for growing marijuana that "it's a problem that's statistically insignificant," he said.

Meanwhile, production has exploded. In 1998, 259 farmers harvested about 6,175 acres of hemp, mostly in Ontario and Manitoba. This year, 674 farmers harvested more than 35,000 acres, a nearly sixfold increase.

"It's given us one hell of a glut of grain and fiber," said L'Ecuyer, whose firm harvested nearly 2,200 acres of hemp this year.  "There's been a major overestimation of the market that's out there."

L'Ecuyer's firm has set up its own processing facility because of the void that existed when the crop was legalized. It is selling fiber to auto manufacturers, who use hemp fiber as a replacement for fiberglass. "We're starting to make decent inroads into a lot of  different markets," he said. "Realize when we started, there was nothing at all in North America no harvesting equipment, no markets." 

Government red tape remains a headache for hemp farmers, "but that's more a glut of paperwork than anything," L'Ecuyer said.

Yet for all the problems, "it's a great rotation crop," he said. "You can substitute it for practically any crop. You don't need chemicals, you don't get weeds, it does a great job of aerating the soil." On a per-acre basis, it nets farmers more income than either corn or soybeans, traditional staple crops.

Waiting to hear

That's music to the ears of hemp's advocates in Minnesota, who are waiting to hear from federal drug officials whether they can undertake test plantings as early as next year. "This is not a panacea for farmers, but it's not a wild-eyed hairy idea either," Edberg said. Department officials have no idea how many farmers might undertake hemp farming if it becomes legal, he said.

"It's not going to be the salvation of all farmers, but it should be an alternative that's available to them," Ventura said.

With the Legislature's blessing, Ventura last month asked the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to allow hemp cultivation -- something the agency has consistently refused to do because officials have called it a subterfuge for efforts to legalize marijuana. 

DEA officials have not responded to Ventura's request that would-be hemp farmers apply for permits through the state Board of Pharmacy and the DEA. Last month, a DEA official said that if the agency changes its policy, it probably would require farmers to post bonds of as much as $1,000 an acre to pay for government seizure and burning of hemp that crosses the 0.3 percent THC threshold. As in Canada, hemp growers probably would have to pay license fees for criminal-background checks and government inspections.

Pressure on the DEA to alter its prohibition of hemp isn't only coming from Minnesota; pro-hemp laws also were enacted this year in North Dakota, Nebraska and Hawaii.

"We need to expand the use of this instead of the DEA running its unwinnable war on drugs," Ventura said. "We're trying to create a viable product here -- what's the Constitution written on? Hemp. It was a viable product in this country for 200 years, but no longer. That's ridiculous."

But DEA officials' actions show they remain wary of hemp. A few weeks ago, they seized 40,000 pounds of birdseed at a border crossing in Detroit -- birdseed produced by Kenex that consisted of processed hemp.

"We haven't gotten the seed back," L'Ecuyer said. "But that put us in the news all over the world."


THE STAR TRIBUNE
St. Paul, Minnesota
October 14, 1999


Hemp's history
6500 B.C. -- First harvested in central Asia
4500 B.C. -- Wild hemp domesticated in China
2700 B.C. -- Included in pharmacopoeia of Shen Nung, Chinese medical pioneer
450 B.C. -- Greek historian Herodotus reports that Scythians throw hemp seeds on heated stones and inhale the smoke
5 B.C. -19th century -- Used in 90 percent of ships' canvas sails, rigging and nets
15th-20th centuries -- Used in artists' canvases
16th-18th centuries -- Major fiber crop in Russia, Europe and North America
1606 -- French botanist plants first N. American hemp crop in Nova Scotia
1870 -- U.S. Pharmacopoeia lists cannabis as medicine
1937 -- U.S. prohibits cannabis cultivation
1938 -- Canada bans cannabis cultivation
1940s -- U.S. and Canadian governments lift cultivation bans to assist war effort
1998 -- Canada legalizes hemp production and sale
1999 -- Minnesota asks federal gov. permission to conduct hemp cultivation tests

Among the reported 25,000 commercial and industrial uses for hemp:
Insulation, particleboard, fiberboard
Rope, twine, yarn
Methanol, heating oil
Horse stable bedding, compost
Salad oil, pharmaceuticals, soaps
Cellophane
Diapers, newsprint, cardboard, filters, absorbent paper
Clothing, carpets, curtains, upholstery
Paint, ink

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