The case for hemp: good to wear, bad to smoke

By Adam Worobec

In late 2009, hemp advocates were hoping to piggyback the California vote to legalize marijuana. The proposition would have allowed the cultivation of all cannabis, including both marijuana and hemp, but it failed to pass. Despite hemp’s amazing potential, marijuana’s bad rap is holding hemp back.

First let’s get our facts straight. The words hemp and marijuana are often used interchangeably when they actually refer to different things. Trying to get high smoking hemp would be like to trying to get drunk drinking non-alcoholic beer. Hemp is the ultra low-THC (tetrahydracannabinol, the cannabinoid that gets you high) cousin of marijuana. Technically, ‘hemp’ refers to about 60 varieties of cannabis that contain less than 0.3 per cent THC, whereas marijuana can have as much as 24 per cent THC. Smoking something made of hemp would certainly not get you high, only a headache.

The truth is that hemp products

are often superior to their alternatives. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both cultivated hemp and believed it superior to linen and tobacco. Hemp seed is an amazing food source that is high in protein. Cold pressed hemp seed oil has lots of omega-3, 6 and 9 fatty acids, lots

of vitamin E and is low in saturated fat. It’s nutritious, delicious and

good for your skin. Agriculturally, it is an environmentally friendly crop that grows fast and requires no herbicides or pesticides. The outside of the stem makes cloth four times stronger than cotton, is more absorbent and dries faster. Gone are the days of rough coarse cloth– new processing techniques make silky soft hemp cloth. The woody core of the stem is high in cellulose and makes strong, white paper which can be recycled more times. It makes absorbent animal bedding or can be mixed with lime and water which petrifies to make strong, green, lightweight concrete alternatives. 

Many still mistakenly fear that hemp fields could be used to hide marijuana crops, but this is unfounded. Hemp and marijuana are harvested at different times and in different manners. In every hemp crop there are male and female plants.  But the stuff people smoke is called ‘sensimilla:’ unfertilized female cannabis flowers. Female marijuana plants grown near hemp would become fertilized and thus have significantly lower potency and little value.

Way back in 1998 the Canadian government recognized hemp’s value and legalized its agricultural production. In 1998, Canada grew 5,857 acres of hemp for industrial use. In 1999, the total increased six-fold to nearly 34,657 acres. Consolidated Growers and Processors Inc. out of California had agreed to buy most of Manitoba’s crop, which was largely responsible for the drastic increase in production. Then they filed for bankruptcy, leaving Canadian hemp growers without a buyer for their crops.

There were a few small Canadian companies that tried to fill the void, but today we really only have one small fibre processing facility, Stemergy Inc, in Ontario. Farmers in western Canada can sell their hemp seed to a variety of hemp oil processors, but the valuable bales of stalks and stems are burnt or left to rot. Experts agree that the major hurdle for a successful hemp industry is technological in nature. We just don’t have the infrastructure. It’s sad that 12 years after it was legalized here, we still are not processing this important fibre.

Because of cannabis prohibition in North America, China has surged ahead in the hemp industry, making it more difficult for Canada to enter the market. China grows and processes more hemp than any other country. Hemp has never been illegal there. Chinese farmers are given hemp seed for free by the government, who are actively promoting and pushing the industry. Why isn’t Canada? Most likely due to the stigma that cannabis still carries. Because of prohibition, our subconscious feelings and emotions toward cannabis have been so ingrained that we are unable to look at hemp objectively.

In September 2008, it was announced that Parkland Industrial Hemp Growers and Parkland BioFibre out of Manitoba received $6 million in grants and loans for a $24 million dollar plant. They plan on exporting the processed raw material to China. Unfortunately, they are still looking for the remianing funding needed to complete the project. Two and a half years later, construction has yet to begin. Others have been searching for an in-field solution, which would allow farmers to do some initial processing of the raw materials themselves.

Things are slowly changing. You can help. Educate yourself. Buy a hemp t-shirt. Hemp is not just for hippies, it’s for the pragmatic.

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