Is hemp the new green gold?

Industrial Hemp is grown in increasing quantities throughout Europe, in China and in other countries to meet the growing demand for hemp-based products.

Industrial Hemp is grown in increasing quantities throughout Europe, in China and in other countries to meet the growing demand for hemp-based products.

The Industrial Hemp Initiative has been promoted by a small group of believers as far back as 1998, when the organisation placed its first proposal on the desk of the Minister of Agriculture. At the time, Andre ‘Pancho’ Becaires was working with the government on agricultural diversification, trying to find an alternative crop to bananas which were soon to lose protection under the terms of the Lomé Convention.

Since then the IHI has remained positive in its belief that hemp as a crop has the potential to rejuvenate the Saint Lucian agricultural sector while providing a mechanism to integrate “true economic diversification within the existing socio-economic livelihoods of rural communities”. The project proposal includes a research study, which would determine the suitable seed strains for local conditions, as well as product development and market research to identify niches and potential for adding value to the crop.

So what can be produced from hemp that would potentially resuscitate the island’s agricultural industry? Maybe the question should be ‘what can’t be produced from hemp’ since its potential is so wide and diverse. The oil from hemp seeds is edible, nutritious, flammable and can be turned into many body products, as has been successfully marketed by The Body Shop for example. The seeds themselves can be roasted and eaten as snacks, or blended as a healthy smoothie additive. Hemp fibre produces one of the strongest and most durable natural textiles, and in fact its combination of ruggedness and comfort were utilised by Levi Strauss as a lightweight duck canvas for the very first pair of jeans made in California.

The biggest impediment to progress, according to Pancho, is the fact that hemp is classified as cannabis sativa L, just like its cousin marijuana, which of course is illegal. The difference with industrial hemp however, is that it is a benign strain of the plant, which contains less than 1% THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive or mind-altering ingredient found in ganja, which generally contains 5% to 20%, depending on the grade. In other words, there’s no point in trying to get high on industrial hemp – it’s impossible.

Interestingly, in 2000, the Industrial Hemp Initiative did receive a response from the Attorney General’s Office via the Ministry of Agriculture, which seemed to identify a reasonably straightforward way to progress the project. According to the AG’s office, “the importation and cultivation of industrial hemp is currently strictly prohibited. However it is possible for Regulations to be issued under existing legislation by the Minister of Health, creating a procedure for granting the licences for the lawful importation and cultivation, for the purposes of research.”

Which means that in the case for industrial hemp, according to the Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act 1988 it is the Health Minister who is in a position to change the game by taking a more sensible and pragmatic approach to the Industrial Hemp Initiative’s proposal to set up a research project as step number one. The act states that the Minister is required to consult with the Advisory Council of Drugs, but can proceed to change regulations without its consent, however these ‘may be annulled’ before the House and Senate. The Chief Medical Officer would also have to approve a licence, which according to the written opinion sent to IHI in 2000 would “avoid any conflict that might arise”.

The recommendations in the document from the AG’s Office outlined a collaborative approach between the Industrial Hemp Initiative and the Ministries of Agriculture and Health with government keeping control of the importation of hemp seeds, and providing and securing the land to be cultivated. Effectively, despite the population’s knee-jerk anti-ganja reaction, Saint Lucia has a pragmatic law on the books which could at least allow the research to take place, under a progressive and committed administration with one eye on a sustainable agro-solution and the other on the worldwide trend towards liberalisation of cannabis.

Fast forward to 2013, and despite the lack of interest and engagement from various administrations, the Industrial Hemp Initiative is ramping up efforts to get its message to the current government and has reached out to Health Minister Alvina Reynolds for a meeting to discuss the project and its potential contribution the country’s economy.  The initiative has been absorbed into the manifesto of the St Lucia Green Party, which supports the reestablishment of an agricultural base for the country’s economy which will benefit the population by filtering wealth from the “bottom up” in the same way as bananas did in their glory days.

For Andre Becaires, who is the St Lucia Green Party leader and one of the founders of the IHI, the vision goes way beyond the research phase. The hemp plant can be used for a wide range of beauty products when combined with other inputs such as coconut oil, aloe vera and cocoa, so there is potential to develop local cottage industries throughout the island to hand-craft high end lotions, soaps and body-care products for export and tourist consumption. With the right investment in factories and equipment, hemp textiles can be produced from the fibre, so a sustainable (and increasingly trendy) fashion sector becomes a possibility. Down the line, there is also potential for agro-tourism development, with tours to working hemp farms, production facilities and product manufacturers.

So far in its most recent tenure, the SLP administration has given Pancho and the Industrial Hemp Initiative the cold shoulder, but with tourism as the country’s sole economic crutch, can they afford to keep ignoring the science and the successful models?

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