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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cannabis, O Canada

Air Date: Week of

It will soon be legal to grow hemp once again in Canada. Next month, the federal government in Ottawa is expected to approve a type of the cannabis plant to be cultivated for its fiber only. Hemp has been outlawed in Canada since the 1930's because of fears that its cultivation would encourage use of the hallucinogen marijuana. But, as Judith Ritter reports, those fears have been allayed.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It will soon be legal to grow hemp once again in Canada. Next month the federal government in Ottawa is expected to approve a type of cannabis plant to be cultivated for its fiber only. Hemp has been outlawed in Canada since the 1930s because of fears that its cultivation would encourage the use of the hallucinogen, marijuana. But as Judith Ritter reports, those fears have apparently been allayed.

RITTER: Canadian farmers and manufacturers eager to cash in on the hemp market began the push to legalize the crop years ago. So in 1994, Canada's Health Department began studying European commercial hemp growing. They reviewed scientific evidence, conducted their own agricultural research, and concluded that under controlled conditions industrial hemp posed no drug threat to Canada. Dr. Gordon Scheifele worked for three years with the Ontario Minister of Agriculture on the Hemp Research Project. He believes now that the drug issue is resolved, a commercial hemp industry may help preserve forests and provide income for Canadian farmers limited by the severe climate.

SCHEIFELE: We are looking at seriously finding alternative sources of fiber for supplementing, as well as replacing, our wood fiber, which is a natural resource that is being depleted very rapidly and has major concern to us as an environmental issue.

RITTER: Saving trees is just one of the environmental reasons behind the push to change Canada's hemp law. Hemp is also soil-friendly. That's been the experience in European countries where hemp is a legal and flourishing industry. Poland is one such place, and Dr. Ryszard Kozlowski is the Director General of the nation's Institute of Natural Fibers.

KOZLOWSKI: We don't use herbicide for growing hemp. We don't use so much fertilizing, chemical fertilizing system. And another very important thing which we discover is that hemp extracts some heavy metals, especially cadmium, from the polluted land.

RITTER: In the United States, growing hemp is illegal. But in several states, including Kentucky, Colorado, and Vermont, farmers are lobbying state officials for the right to do so. Donald Danforth, a consultant to the US paper industry, says Canada's decision to allow hemp production could spur action across the border.

DANFORTH: The fact that Canada will shortly deregulate the growing of hemp should have a very positive effect on the situation in the United States, because this will mean that the United States is the only country that has this prohibition against the growing of hemp, and that seems to me grossly unfair to the farmers who could profit from it. And also the grange in the United States, which I understand is something like 4 million members, has unanimously endorsed the growing of hemp. So there's a great deal of interest.

RITTER: Next month, the Canadian government will accept applications from farmers for hemp growing licenses. But as virtuous as hemp is environmentally, there's no guarantee it will be a commercial success. Hemp seed oil can be used for food products. And hemp fiber can be made into fiberboard and paper. But as yet there's no real demand for these products. Still, farmers are enthusiastic about the possibilities. And when the ice melts this spring, they'll be sowing hemp seeds in Canadian soil for the first time in a half a century. For Living on Earth, I'm Judith Ritter in Montreal.



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