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21 Feb 2020 16:28
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  •   Home > News > Politics

    Hemp is an eco-friendly material, but anti-marijuana campaigns a century ago set the Australian industry back

    The British Government brought hemp to Australia on the First Fleet, but anti-marijuana campaigns killed the industry off in the 1900s. Now it's making a comeback.

    The British Government was the first organisation to import cannabis into Australia.

    They carried Cannabis sativa seeds onboard the First Fleet, with the plan to establish large hemp crops in the colonies.

    At the time, they were using hemp for their sails, rigging, clothing, even the waterproofing for their ships.

    And the Empire was dependent on Russian-grown hemp for its supply — which was considered an unreliable arrangement.

    So what happened to the Australian hemp industry?

    'Burning weed with its roots in hell'

    While Cannabis sativa is the most common plant species for producing both marijuana and hemp, there's a key difference.

    In hemp, the cannabis plant has been bred to have extremely low concentrations of the psychoactive component tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.

    While marijuana may contain upwards of 25 per cent THC, hemp typically contains less than 1 per cent, and smoking it for a high is useless.

    But in the 1920s and '30s, that detail was lost or ignored.

    In a US church-funded propaganda film called Reefer Madness, parents were warned marijuana would make their children sex-crazed, violent, suicidal and insane.

    And Australia wasn't immune.

    In 1938, an Australian newspaper called the Smith's Weekly ran the headline "New drug that maddens victims" and described marijuana as "an evil sex drug" which caused users to "behave like raving sex maniacs".

    Other media voices in the US appealed to racist fears that marijuana was associated with "jazz musicians" (code for black Americans) and Mexicans.

    In his book Cannabis: A History, author Martin Booth states that the Mexican-Spanish term "marijuana" was only popularised in the 1930s by prohibitionist and notorious anti-cannabis government official Harry Anslinger, as a dog-whistle to anti-Mexican xenophobia.

    When US alcohol prohibition ended in the '30s, Anslinger was accused of pivoting to marijuana because his Department of Prohibition would have otherwisebecome obsolete.

    He was noted to have earlier said that marijuana was essentially harmless and it was an "absurd fallacy" that it made people violent.

    While all this was happening, powerful business interests in nylon and cotton were competing with hemp, and appear to have used the association with marijuana to their competitive advantage, according to drug policy consultant Jarryd Bartle.

    "The Egyptian government at the time called for cannabis to be included [in the Geneva opium convention] because of cannabis-induced psychosis in Egypt," Mr Bartle said.

    "But the second theory is that Egypt and Lebanon were big cotton producers and getting rid of cannabis got rid of competition from hemp."

    From the late 1920s through the '30s and '40s, cannabis was outlawed in the US, and also in Australia, and there was no exemption made for hemp.

    Hemp now?

    It took until the 2000s before Australian states began to distinguish between low-THC hemp and cannabis.

    And today, industrial hemp can be legally grown in all states and territories, with THC limited to below 1 per cent in New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland and 0.35 per cent in other states.

    Right now, there are around 2,500 hectares under cultivation, with Tasmania the leading state for hemp growing.

    That's up from 185.5 hectares nationwide in 2011.

    South Australia's first commercial crop went in last year and it is expected the industry in that state will be worth around $3 million per year within the next five years.

    But compared to crops like cotton and wheat, there has been comparatively little industry support for research and marketing of hemp.

    The fledgling Australian hemp industry is decades behind in both product and market development, according to David McNeil from UTAS and the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development.

    In short, the anti-marijuana movement set the Australian hemp industry back nearly 100 years.

    Professor McNeil is working to develop seed strains better suited to warmer and drier conditions in Australia's north.

    One of the reasons the Tasmanian industry is surging ahead is because it has inherited cold-weather hemp industry development from places like Canada, where industrial hemp has been legal for longer.

    The other issue is that harvesters and equipment for hemp processing are a multi-million-dollar investment, and prohibitively expensive for a small-scale farmer.

    "It's the sort of crop where you need to have a group of operators working the same equipment to get a return," Professor McNeil said.

    According to a New South Wales DPI report, a hemp crop in 2008 was worth around $2,450 per hectare, minus growing costs of around $800-$1,200.

    Fear of oversupply

    But the industry is also wary of growing too fast.

    Some hemp farmers in the US have had to let huge crops rot on the ground after their industry experienced a boom in growers that wasn't met by demand, according to James Vosper, president of the Australian Industrial Hemp Alliance.

    "Year on year the areas under cultivation [in Australia] are growing," he said.

    "But not like in the US where a lot of people have come flooding into the market without experience … and they're having a glut of material without the market.

    "It's not like quinoa or something, we don't want it to be a fad."

    Hemp is often touted as a wonder crop that can replace just about everything from plastic to petrol and solve all our environmental woes.

    It's not. But that expectation is holding it to an unfair standard, Mr Vosper said.

    "Hemp shouldn't have to be a magic bullet," he said.

    "What we're saying is it's a viable alternative to cotton, to wool, to concrete. That's all we're saying."

    Hemp still has many of the limitations of those crops.

    Though it's more water-efficient than cotton, large-scale hemp cultivation would still strain our limited water resources — it needs between 3 and 6 megalitres of irrigation per hectare.

    And it's nitrogen-hungry in its first few weeks of growth.

    It does have some impressive environmental credentials, though.

    It grows faster than most weeds, negating the need for herbicides, and it's fairly pest-resistant.

    It's an excellent crop for carbon sequestration and it can be used to make a strong and pest-resistant building material called hempcrete that continues to absorb carbon dioxide as it cures.

    Two crops can be grown per season, and in some ways it's less risky than forestry — if a crop burns, for instance, it can be replaced the following season.

    As for textiles, wearing hemp 30 years ago was a bit like dressing in hessian but today the fabric has been refined and is akin to a light and durable cotton.

    It can also be used to make a biodegradable plastic-like material, and the seeds are very high in protein.

    And it has been used to clean up contaminated sites — its large root system has been used to mop up things like gold, lead, cadmium and nickel from the soil.

    It was shown to be experimentally effective at decontaminating soil of radiated heavy metals in fields around Chernobyl in the 1990s.

    Had things gone differently, it's possible that Australia would have a hemp industry today on par with many of its other major crops.

    It's likely to continue to grow as research, development and investment catch up to those established industries.

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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