High hopes for the first legal cannabis crop: Russell Cronin speaks to the farmers who have Home Office permission to grow hemp

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The Independent Online
CANNABIS is being legally cultivated in this country for the first time in 30 years. The cannabis sativa plant, also known as hemp, is the source of the mildly narcotic drug marijuana, and its cultivation was banned in 1964. None the less a consortium of 20 farmers calling themselves Hemcore has obtained a licence from the Home Office to grow hemp on 1,500 acres of land spread around East Anglia and expect to harvest their crop towards the end of August.

The kind of cannabis being grown is not intended for smoking, however. Nor is it suitable, being extremely low in the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). It is one of 12 varieties of cannabis sativa described as being 'distinct, uniform and stable' (meaning that the smokeable parts of the plant contain less than 0.3 per cent THC) that can be grown across the EC, according to guidelines laid down in 1970.

'The word 'cannabis' has all the wrong connotations,' Hemcore's spokesman, Ian Low, said.

'We prefer to call it hemp. Hemp is a fine old English crop which was grown all around here before the turn of the century, when it was used chiefly for making rope and sailcloth. There's even a village just north of Saffron Walden called Hempstead.'

Most of the Hemcore crop will be sold to paper mills that currently import hemp fibres to make cigarette papers, high quality stationery, and teabags. Some of it will be used as bedding for livestock. 'That's a fairly recent idea from France,' Mr Low said. 'The soft inner core of the hemp stem makes ideal bedding, since not only is it soft and extremely absorbent, but it's also easily compostable, unlike wood shavings.'

Hemp is also arguably better than wood pulp for making paper since it contains considerably less lignin, the substance that binds the cellulose fibres together and is usually broken down with chlorine bleach in the process of making paper from wood pulp. Not only are noxious chemicals unnecessary to make paper from hemp, but its fibres are longer and stronger and an acre of hemp yields four times as much fibre suitable for making paper as an acre of trees. Whereas trees take 20 years to reach maturity, hemp grows 10ft tall in about four months.

John Hanson, who makes and markets what he calls 'tree-free' paper in Lyme Regis, Dorset, is an evangelist for paper made from 'annual indigenous plant fibres', by which he means hemp, flax and cornstalks. Mr Hanson sells limited quantities of good quality writing paper with a distinctive cannabis leaf watermark, but his main puropose is to demonstrate to the paper industry that it is possible to make decent paper without using trees.

This project started in 1980, when John Hanson edited the 'Hempathy' issue of the Ecologist magazine, which discussed the environmental benefits of what he describes, with references to Rabelais and Pliny the Younger, as 'the most versatile plant known to civilisation'. Earlier this year he supplied the paper used for the 1992 index of the Ecologist (a supplement to the March/April edition) and hopes that from the August issue the entire magazine can be printed on paper made from hemp.

The Hemcore farmers are not concerned with revolutionising the paper industry in the first year of their project, merely supplying it with an alternative raw material. 'Recycled paper is all very well, but you got diminishing returns each time it's recycled. Hemp can be used to boost the quality of recycled paper,' Mr Low said. 'For the long term, we are looking at developing the use of hemp for making textiles.'

The members of Hemcore have set up a Federation of Hemp Farmers to encourage others to follow their lead and the Intervention Board, based in Reading, which administers subsidies under the common agricultural policy, has recently put out a form explaining how to go about it.

(Photographs omitted)