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Hemp Legalization Sparks Growth of New Industries

In legalizing hemp production in 1998, Canada took restrictions off environmentally-sound paper products, clothing, and oil. Meanwhile, the U.S. maintains its ban on hemp production, arguing that legalizing hemp would make it difficult to differentiate marijuana and hemp fields. Read on to find out what we can learn from our northern neighbor.

MONTREAL -- Now that the jokes about getting high on hemp are trailing off, Greg Herriott is happier. It means people have a better grasp of the differences between hemp and marijuana.

Industrial hemp, like marijuana, is a member of the cannabis sativa family, but has negligible traces of the hallucinatory chemical THC. Herriott is in the hemp business, one of a growing number of entrepreneurs developing a new industry now that hemp can be grown legally in Canada.

In 1998 the Canadian government legalized the growth of industrial hemp under license from Health Canada, the country's ministry of health, following a 60-year ban because of hemp's association with its psychotropic cousin. Hemp generally contains 0.1 percent to 0.4 percent THC, far less than needed for any kind of drug-induced high. Marijuana, by contrast, generally has THC levels of between 4 and 20 percent.

In legalizing hemp production, Canada has broken step with the United States, which has adamantly refused to lift its ban. Four states -- Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota and North Dakota -- have passed legislation to permit hemp production for research and commercial purposes, but the federal Controlled Substances Act still keeps it illegal. Legislatures in five other states -- California, Illinois, Montana, Vermont and Virginia - have called on the federal government to change its policy. Until that change occurs, hemp production remains off limits.

U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey has argued that legalizing hemp would make it impossible to bust marijuana-growing operations, since hemp in the field looks similar to marijuana. But Andy Kerr, a member of the board of the North American Industrial Hemp Council, scoffs at that line of argument. "There are 30 countries that can tell the difference between hemp and marijuana, but he can't seem to," Kerr said.

There's other opposition to legalizing hemp. Hemp is a remarkably versatile crop requiring almost no herbicides that can be used to make everything from fiber products and oil to textiles and paper, according to the Hemp Industries Association, based in Occidental, Calif. Hemp advocates say the synthetics industry, which supplies so much of these products already, sees hemp as a threat to its market share.

Canada's legalization of industrial hemp has opened the door to a whole new market comprising mainly small companies selling a variety of hemp-based products ranging from soap to salad dressing.

Herriott and his wife, Kelly Smith, operate Hempola, based in Port Severn, Ontario, which sells hemp-based products including massage oils, flour, salad dressing, soap, moisturizing cream, lip balm and hemp oil. "We were pretty gun-shy," Herriott recalled. "After close to two years of research we finally bit the bullet."

Hempola is part of an industry that, still in its infancy, is growing at an estimated 20 percent a year. According to a 1998 study by the province of Nova Scotia, the North American market for hemp is estimated at $28 million to $30 million (U.S.), with annual increases of $8 million to $10 million. That includes the United States, where industrial hemp products are legal, but their manufacture is not.

Efforts to market hemp products in Canada are only just beginning because most of the first crop was used to develop seed for a new crop, explained Sasha Przytyk, general manager of Regina, Saskatchewan-based GEN-X Research. "After this, you'll probably see more than one brand of hemp oil, for example, on the market," he said.

Hempola hopes to capitalize on this growth potential. Through its Canadian and American distributors, its products are available in health food and grocery stores in Canada and some stores in the United States.