Hemp rules leave growers high 'n' dry

Hemp rules leave growers high 'n' dry


Cropping
Hemp grower Phil Reader said politicians "don't want to touch" legalising hemp foods consumption for fear of public backlash.

Hemp grower Phil Reader said politicians "don't want to touch" legalising hemp foods consumption for fear of public backlash.

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A FIVE-MINUTE drive through Bishopsbourne reveals a flourishing hemp crop – visible from the road.

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A FIVE-MINUTE drive through Bishopsbourne reveals a flourishing hemp crop – visible from the road.

Twelve months ago it would have been illegal.

"You couldn't grow it (hemp) within five kilometres of schools; it was just ridiculous," said Phil Reader, president of Tasmania's Industrial Hemp Association.

Mr Reader, who grows hemp seed, which Hemp Australia presses for oil, was referring to the "bureaucratic nightmare" of trying to grow a hemp crop.

He explained that because hemp came under both the Poisons Act 1971, and the Misuse of Drugs Act 2001, growers were burdened with regulations from five different government departments.

"We had to deal with the Department of Primary Industries, Environment and Water, health, police, justice departments and the drug squad," he said.

"They all wanted to put their own interpretations on the 'rules' and we found they were enforcing more things on us than were actually the law."

Industrial hemp, Cannabis sativa L (part of the same species as its psychoactive cousin marijuana but possessing none of those properties), was legalised in Tasmania in 1995, with NSW the last State to follow suit in 2008.

However, consumption of hemp-based food products has remained illegal in Australia, which has hamstrung development of a profitable industry, according to Hemp Foods Australia chief executive Paul Benhaim.

Mr Benhaim, who spent 20 years developing industrial hemp in the UK, said Australia was in danger of being left behind.

"There is a global understanding that hemp-based foods are in no way linked to marijuana but Australian politicians seem a little old-fashioned in that regard," he said.

In February the US lifted a ban on growing industrial hemp for food consumption, following countries like Canada and the UK.

Australian police were concerned legalising hemp food products would influence oral fluid THC levels in the roadside saliva test – a test which is unique to this country.

National police agencies quoted in Food Standards Australia and New Zealand's (FSANZ) application to legalise hemp foods in October 2012, said hemp food consumption could create "false positive screening results, which would require confirmatory tests at the costs of police".

Screening tests were $40 and laboratory confirmation would cost on average $200 a sample, police said.

However, very little testing has been undertaken to justify these concerns.

New Zealand's Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) conducted a number of in-house tests in 2012 to investigate the presence of THC in oral fluid levels after consumption of high-THC cannabis.

ESR forensic toxicologist Dr Helen Poulsen was involved in the trials where participants consumed 3.5 per cent THC cannabis via smoking and cookies.

Dr Poulsen said because THC has very poor bioavailability, very little THC actually reached the bloodstream when eaten.

"THC blood levels were very low after high-potency cannabis cookies were eaten so it's unlikely THC would be detected in blood after low-potency hemp products were eaten – assuming the amount consumed was 'normal'," she said.

The highest level of THC allowed in industrial hemp crops in Australia is 1pc, but the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) estimates some strains of marijuana can contain up to 24pc THC.

THC is present in the flowers and leaves of a hemp crop but not in the seeds themselves.

State departments provide licences to grow an industrial hemp crop, which includes annual testing at accredited laboratories.

Southern Cross University's analytical research laboratory has tested a number of hemp crops, and manager Ashley Dowell said in NSW 0.5pc THC is the limit for flowering tops of hemp grown for the production of seed used in propagation of future crops.

He said levels of THC in industrial hemp compared to marijuana were "really almost none at all".

Industrial hemp licence assessment officer for NSW DPI, Philip Blackmore, said "it was very rare if we get something over 1pc THC".

Random samples are taken from a crop for testing, which would make it "very difficult" to hide illegal substances within a hemp paddock, he said.

FSANZ's application to legalise hemp foods consumption is being assessed by the Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council – a combination of State food and health ministers – but a formal decision has again been delayed, this time until June 2014.

The Ministerial Council was asked by Stock & Land for a response but declined to comment.

Mr Reader said politicians "don't want to touch it" for fear of public backlash.

"It's only divisive through the ignorance of Federal politicians and bureaucrats not wanting to change anything," he said.

The first industry-led push to change hemp regulation in 1999 was, according to Mr Reader, a disaster.

He said politicians, aware of the public ignorance surrounding hemp, used its association with marijuana to defer making a decision.

Fifteen years later, Phil Warner, EcoFibre Industries, NSW, the largest industrial hemp processor in Australia, said governments were offering the same defence despite a change in public perception.

"If it had bipartisan support it (legalising hemp food consumption) would happen," he said.

"The main problem is one side thinking the opposition is going to start throwing stones at you for going soft on drugs.

"We don't have the will or the political champions out there who are prepared to speak out about hemp," said Mr Warner, who sent 2.5 tonnes of hemp to Parliament House in 2004 to educate politicians on the difference between the two.

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