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Newshawk: Chris Donald
Source: Wall Street Journal
Pubdate: 24 Apr 1998
Author: John Urquhart


Hemp is back.  Ever since the "Reefer Madness" scare of the 1930s, both the U.S.  and Canada have strictly forbidden farmers to grow the plant, a relative of marijuana.  But now, Canada has broken the taboo.  In the next few weeks, its farmers will seed their first legal hemp crops in 60 years.

Facts About Hemp:

*Strong fiber used for textiles, building materials, pulp and paper; its seed produces oil for food, medicine and cosmetics.

*Hemp cultivation requires no pesticides or herbicides.

*Hemp growing countries include China, Romania, France, Germany, Netherlands, England and Hungary.

*World-wide industrial hemp sales ( excluding China ) were $75 million in 1997 and are projected to be $250 million in 1999, according to HEMPTECH, a California consulting company.

Hemp is back.  Ever since the "Reefer Madness" scare of the 1930s, both the U.S.  and Canada have strictly forbidden farmers to grow the plant, a relative of marijuana.  But now, Canada has broken the taboo.  In the next few weeks, its farmers will seed their first legal hemp crops in 60 years.

The Canadians figure this will give them a big jump on American farmers who are lobbying Washington for permission to cultivate the crop, too.  Hemp farmers see growing markets for the versatile fiber, used in everything from paper to auto parts.  For instance, the German-made 5 Series BMW care has 44 pounds of natural fibers including hemp in its roof, door, trunk and other areas.

U.S.  Drug law enforcers are watching the Canadian initiative warily.  But Canada insists it will make sure its farmers see only an "industrial" variety of hemp.  This type produces lots of oil and fiber, but only insignificant amounts of the psychoactive chemical that put hemp in the doghouse six decades ago.

Hemp was a mainstay crop of early North American settlers.  It gave its name to towns and villages in more than a dozen U.S.  States, where it was cultivated to make rope, paper, cloth and other staples.  According to hemp historians, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were hemp growers and hemp paper was used for initial drafts of the Declaration of Independence.

But hemp fell out of favor in the 1930s, partly because of competition from cotton, but mainly because of fears stirred by such movies as "Reefer Madness." Originally titled "The Burning Question," the 1936 "warning" film attempted to show how one puff of pot could lead clean-cut teenagers down the road to insanity and death.  Following the scare, only World War II supply emergencies could move U.S.  To make brief exceptions to its ban on raising hemp.

Despite the ban, hemp has retained a dedicated following among "hempsters," who extol the nutritious oils of hemp's grain and the strong fibers of its sturdy stalk.

Modest amounts of hemp fiber, fabric and seed have continued to trickle into North America from Europe and China to be made into paper, jeans, socks, cosmetics and edible oils for salad dressing and the like.  California alone has more than a dozen hemp product stores.  The seed sold in such stores must be heat-treated before it is imported so that it can't be cultivated.

Pro-hemp farmers are quick to distance themselves from marijuana advocates, who see the legalization of hemp as a step toward the legalization of marijuana.  "We're ropers, and they're dopers," says Fraser Smith, who is helping to fund an industrial hemp venture in Ontario province.

The main U.S.  Lobby group for industrial hemp, the North American Industrial Hemp Council, refuses membership to anyone who "in any way, form or fashion openly advocates the legalization of marijuana or any other drug," says the council's chairman, Erwin Sholts.

Warnings of a possible wood-fiber shortage and the prospect of tighter environmental rules favoring natural fibers over synthetic ones have heightened farmers' interest in hemp.  Hemp fiber is strong and resists mildew.  Farmers see big potential demand for it in such markets as household furnishings and building materials.  Cultivation of this North American native plant requires very little if any herbicide, pesticide and fertilizer application, and because the plant actually improves the soil, it is considered an excellent rotational crop.

Farmers expect to seed several thousand acres of hemp in southwestern Ontario this year.  They especially plan to supply non-woven hemp mats and fiber to the auto and carpet industries.  For instance, the German auto maker Bayerische Motorenwerke AG has pioneered the use of hemp and other natural fibers in its cars to make them lighter and more biodegradable.

Lack of U.S.  competition is giving some Canadian farmers an edge.  Interface Inc., a major Atlanta carpet manufacturer, says it hopes to have on the market later this year a hemp carpet that could be composted when the time came to replace it.  Interface has contracted for Canadian hemp supplies, but the company believes the U.S.  should be cultivating the crop, says Ray Berard, senior vice president for technology.  The Canadian government is tightly regulating hemp cultivation to prevent abuses.  Hemp plants must have no more than 0.3% of THC, the psychoactive element that gives cannabis smokers their high.  THC stands for delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol.  The THC level in marijuana currently runs as high as 16% to 20%, police say.

Canadian hemp growers must be licensed by the federal government and will be monitored by the police.  Officials say they are worried they won't be able to distinguish legal from illegal hemp acreage, unless special arrangements are made to map legal crops precisely.

In Washington, the Office of National Drug Control Policy warns that American marijuana laws could be undermined if industrial hemp were approved for cultivation in the U.S.  The agency notes that industrial hemp and marijuana come from different varieties of the same plant, Cannabis Sativa.  "The seedlings are the same and in many instances the mature plants look the same," the agency says.

Government officials also warn that hemp may be risky economically, especially since some hemp products are costlier than alternatives.  But farmers can't wait to raise the crop.  Canada's federal health department, which is handling the licensing of industrial hemp growers here, has had trouble fielding all the calls from would-be growers.

Predictions of a growing market influence these farmers.  Sally Rutherford, executive director of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, says hemp isn't a bountiful "Cinderella crop." But she predicts that the hemp market will gradually increase as new productive seed varieties are introduced and new technologies are developed for processing hemp fibers.

Big fiber consumers, such as the paper industry, are assessing hemp as a raw material to supplement wood.

Living Tree Paper Co., based in Eugene, Ore., markets a hemp paper, milled in Canada, for the fine printing and writing-paper market.  Sotos Petrides, publisher of Commercial Hemp, a Canadian trade publication, says hemp produces "a high-end paper, no pun intended."

HempWorld, a California publication, figures the rising interest in the fiber may turn at least one Ontario grower, Jean Laprise, into a "hemp mogul." Mr.  Laprise heads Kenex Corp., which is contracting with dozens of southwestern Ontario farmers to produce hemp.  If all goes as Mr.  Laprise plans, they will have 2,000 acres of hemp growing within weeks.

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