CannaBioland Calls: The Hemp Fields of Switzerland

THE TWO DANIELSThe two men have never met but they share the same first name, both are natives of the same state and both are in almost constant pain. Both men are named Daniel and live in Ohio. Daniel Ashbury resides in West Union, near Toledo; Daniel "B" (whose real last name and address are being withheld at his request) lives in a small town in the southeastern part of the state. In addition to their various infirmities, which keep each confined to bed or to a wheelchair, the two Daniels also share legal problems.Because they have not been able to obtain relief from the chronic pain they suffer by means of prescription drugs at least, not without experiencing significant negative side effects -- both Daniels have sought and received doctor's prescriptions for another drug, one which, although it is grown naturally and subjects users to virtually no harmful side effects, is not currently marketed by any large pharmaceutical company. The reason this benign drug is not being handled by the drug industry (and some say the "reason" is actually part of the cause) will be apparent as soon as you hear its "brand name." It is called marijuana. Both Daniels are also the recipients of an unusual invitation which relates directly to their medical needs and to their legal problems an offer to visit the hemp fields of Switzerland. It is an offer of which only one of them will be able to take advantage.As Daniel "B" tells it, the misery of the spinal chord injuries he received in a 1987 train accident is best relieved by ingesting marijuana (due to compressed lungs, he cannot smoke). "I have narcotics, but I don't like what they do to me," says Daniel B. "I do much better with marijuana, function better, sleep much better, etc. On the narcotics, I'm a different person. My parents (with whom Daniel lives) say they can easily tell the difference."Unfortunately for both Daniels and thousands like them who, suffering from ailments ranging from glaucoma to AIDS, could benefit from therapeutic doses of marijuana such relief comes with liabilities of its own. That's something else the Daniels share. They are both currently under criminal indictment for possession of marijuana.Daniel Asbury was charged in connection with marijuana plants he attempted to grow himself in his own yard. It was an effort driven by Asbury's desire to obtain a safe, affordable quantity of a drug which has been his most effective source of relief from the various infirmities which now keep him confined to his bed. Local authorities, however, nipped that plan in the bud literally."I had twelve plants," says Asbury. "They had barely even turned purple" [i.e. they had just begun to mature]. Asbury says it was determined that the dozen plants, if harvested and prepared for smoking, would have yielded barely enough active resin to produce a misdemeanor charge. He was indicted, however, on one count of possession of marijuana for each of the twelve plants.Moreover, the local prosecutor took steps to make sure the jury was impressed with the scale of Ashbury's transgressions. "They used sort of trick photography," says Asbury. "They had this one cop who happened to be quite short hold the largest plant, and then took the shot from below, looking up, so that it looked enormous. And that's what they showed the jury." Asbury received a two-year suspended jail sentence and is currently serving probation. His illnesses, however, have made if difficult for him to meet the terms of that probation, a situation which, in turn, has placed him in additional jeopardy. At the time of this interview, Asbury was recovering from an incident which "almost tore off my big toe." He had suffered the injury while experiencing the very sort of acute muscle spasms which marijuana therapy can prevent."My medical situation deteriorates without marijuana," he says, "and they know it." Daniel B., on the other hand, did not grow the cannabis plants which led to the charges currently pending against him. They were grown by farmers in Switzerland farmers belonging to what is the largest and most successful agricultural cooperative in the world dedicated to the planting, cultivation and harvesting of high-quality, psychoactive-capable crops of cannabis sativa, or hemp.The Swiss natural hemp industry, moreover, constitutes the world's only legal and open large-scale agricultural effort to produce hemp that can get you high.CASTRATED HEMPMuch attention has been given lately to the emergence (or, as some say, the re-emergence) of "industrial hemp," so-called because, under guidelines recently proposed in this country, the plants would be genetically manipulated to contain no more than three-tenths of a percent (.3 percent) of THC the psychoactive agent in cannabis sativa. Because industrial hemp has such low THC content ("natural" marijuana plants contain three to five percent THC), it would be virtually impossible to get high by smoking or ingesting it. According to its increasingly numerous advocates, however, getting a buzz may be the only thing you can't do with industrial hemp.Industrial hemp is being touted by activists as a possible solution to ecological problems ranging from deforestation to soil erosion. Many claim that hemp, the source of the world's longest and strongest natural fiber, is a better and much more easily renewed source of industrial fiber and pulp for paper than timber, while the cellulose-rich hurds and seeds produced by the plants can be used to make products ranging from insulation to degradable plastics. At an industrial hemp expo held last year in Hamburg, Germany, scientists, agricultural specialists, business leaders and others representing countries from the U.S. to China met to share and discuss information. In addition to paper and cloth, industrial hemp, it turns out, also can be used to manufacture cellulose-based construction materials, diesel fuel, and even brake linings.Many governments have given cautious approval to limited industrial hemp projects in their respective countries, while here in the U.S., several states are actively considering legislation that would sanction the farming of industrial hemp. The Colorado legislature not normally known as politically liberal body has actually passed an ordinance legalizing industrial hemp farming in that state, and hemp test plots have been planted on the Arizona reservation of the Navajo Nation.Because industrial hemp has such extraordinary versatility, is able to adapt to a wide range of climates and seems to promise great ecological benefits, some people are calling it the "wonder fiber of the twenty-first century".That, however, is not what Jean-Pierre Egger calls it. Egger, the lawyer/farmer who is the driving force behind the "natural" hemp agricultural movement in Switzerland refers to the genetically-altered species as "castrated hemp."In addition to being useless as a source of medicinal marijuana, low-THC plants lack the built-in "natural pesticide" feature of cannabis sativa. Because genetically altered plants require fertilizers, pesticides and growth stimulators, Egger claims they do not deserve to be called hemp."It is like a bull with its testicles removed," Egger argues. "If a plant lacks the characteristics of hemp, it has not the right to call itself hemp." A French court recently found itself in agreement with Egger, ruling that the French crop of altered plants must be referred to by brand names (such as Futura) and that industrial hemp seeds could not be labeled "organic".But, then, it is not unusual for courts to find themselves in agreement with Jean-Pierre Egger, particularly when it comes to the issue to which the 47-year-old Swiss lawyer has devoted extraordinary degrees of energy, resolve and resourcefulness.SWITZERLAND'S GALILEO OF CANNABIS LAWThe hemp shipment that got Daniel B. arrested came from Jean-Pierre Egger's group, formerly called the Swiss Hemp Trading Company, or SWIHTCO. Daniel B. had written to SWIHTCO and included his doctor's prescription; having ascertained he was "a physically disabled person in need of a medicine that is not available through conventional channels," the Swiss-American company sent Daniel B. a shipment of hemp by Federal Express. Almost immediately after the Swiss marijuana arrived at his door, so did the sheriff's deputies who confiscated the hemp and arrested him.There will be no sheriff's deputies on hand August 25, however, even though Daniel B. will find himself on that date in the midst of a much larger quantity of Swiss hemp than the Fed Ex delivery that got him busted in Ohio. Having reached an accommodation with prosecutors at his pre-trial hearing last week, Daniel B. will soon fly to Switzerland as the guest of the Swiss Association of Hemp Growers (or VSHB, for Verein Schweizer Hanfproduzierender Bauern), to attend the third annual occurrence of something called CannaBioland an event that could take place nowhere else in the world besides Switzerland.As CannaBioland's guest of honor, Daniel B. will cut a ceremonial ribbon and symbolically open to public view and consumption some 25,000 square meters of natural hemp plants in full bloom plants so sticky with resin, according to Jean-Pierre Egger's description, "your hands are black with hashish after five minutes of handling them." (VSHB also invited Daniel Ashbury to attend this year's CannaBioland; his parole officer, however, would not let him make the trip.)Described by its organizers as a "health and ecological path," CannaBioland is a family-oriented event that encourages the public to experience the spectacle of the world's only legal large-area natural hemp crop. People are invited to enjoy the look, the feel and the aroma of the plants and to buy them."We also rent plots of about one hundred square meters, each with about fifty to eighty plants, selling for about $1,400," says Egger. It is this kind of marketing ingenuity, enabling a farmer to pre-sell about twenty percent of his field for about ten times more than a full harvest of a "normal" crop might fetch, that explains why many Swiss hemp farmers can now be seen (fleetingly) negotiating the hairpin turns of the country's mountainous roads in late-model Mercedes Benz automobiles.And it all came about because Egger took the time to read his country's drug laws carefully. Because Switzerland is not a member of the United Nations ("a fact for which," Egger says, "I thank God"), it is not subject to the 1971 drug policy accords forced on UN members by the Nixon administration. The Swiss laws governing marijuana have been on the books for sixty years. They prohibit the illicit use of hemp, but, unlike the American laws emulated by the rest of the world, Swiss law does not prohibit cultivation of the plant itself."It is exactly the same law which applies to fruit trees," says Egger. "You can have as many apricot trees as you want, but one single thing you cannot do [with them] distillate alcohol."Having come to the realization that his country's laws provided a basis for the protection of hemp farming, the rest, as Egger says, "is easy." In the absence of any university-level publications on those laws, however, it cost Egger a lot of time and effort to come to that realization not to mention the effort it took to convince others that he was right."With regard to demonstrating that our own Swiss laws did indeed permit natural hemp to be grown, I found myself, like Galileo, trying to prove that the world was not flat, but round."Egger, however, though he exults in the steady expansion of the Swiss hemp association, is far from satisfied with how his solar system is currently perceived. Although the leading Swiss newspapers have taken to running photos of mothers holding their young children as they stroll through the hemp fields at CannaBioland, Egger pointedly notes the absence of other coverage particularly by the American media."Where are Time, Newsweek and the other major American [media] stationed in Switzerland?" he asks. Indeed, apart from a recent article in the London-based journal, The Independent, it would seem as though the major media interests have conspired to ignore Egger and the pungent aroma of his 25,000 square meters of natural Swiss hemp.PHILIP MORRIS IN THE CONCERT HALLEgger strongly suspects that behind-the-scenes influence from the American government and from American commercial interests in addition to a certain amount of built-in "protection" for influential Swiss pharmaceutical companies like Sandoz (the originators of LSD) -- have contributed to the Swiss hemp industry's condition of "invisibility." That influence, he claims, can best be seen in the two Swiss cantons (states) where the Philip Morris group operates facilities that produce somewhere between 3.2 billion to 4.5 billion cigarettes annually for sale in eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In the canton of Neuchatel, where Philip Morris operates its assembly line, and in Lausanne, capitol of the canton of Vaud, where its headquarters are located, the American tobacco company is also the biggest local taxpayer and leaves a large corporate footprint.In Vaud and Neuchatel, Egger says, virtually all of the youth events are sponsored by Philip Morris. In Lausanne, also the seat of the International Olympic Committee, the state concert hall (where Cincinnati Symphony music director Jesus Lopez-Cobos often conducts his Lausanne Chamber Orchestra) is equipped with Philip Morris ashtrays. But Egger also says he can detect the more subtle and more pernicious influence of the American tobacco giant at work in Swiss courtrooms.Recently, in one of the Swiss cantons where Philip Morris does not pay taxes, Egger represented a client charged with possession of thirty-three kilos of marijuana, two kilos of hash and fifty LSD pills. That client got off with only a fine of 300 French francs (about $70), an outcome reflecting the relatively lenient attitude toward drug use typical of most of Switzerland.Yet, in Vaud and Neuchatel, growing a hemp plant in your garden is customarily punished by the loss of your driver's license and teenagers caught with even a single joint receive month-long prison sentences.Egger also bristles at the hypocrisy of his own countrymen, who, in seemingly willful denial of the implications of the abundant VSHB hemp harvest, "persist in the error of the last thirty years," and continue to prosecute their fellow citizens for the possession of what Egger considers to be a benign and valuable natural resource. The reason for this persistent error also is clear to Egger.Were officials in Switzerland and elsewhere to allow themselves to take full cognizance of what it means to have "for the third year in a row, fields with row after row of real hemp, which we can make as strong as we want -- then the marijuana laws will appear even more ridiculous than they already do."As for people in this country, even if they cannot all travel to Switzerland like Daniel B., as the all-expenses-paid guests of VSHB, Egger encourages them to "hop over and be among a field of real marijuana plants." "Of course," he adds with a laugh, "you mustn't inhale."

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