Legalising hemp plants fights poverty

A handful of hemp seeds that can be used in the production of products such as hemp seed foods, hemp oil, wax, resin, rope, cloth, pulp, paper, fuel and medicine. Photo: AP.

A handful of hemp seeds that can be used in the production of products such as hemp seed foods, hemp oil, wax, resin, rope, cloth, pulp, paper, fuel and medicine. Photo: AP.

Published Nov 17, 2014


Johannesburg - Anyone serious about alleviating poverty in South Africa with a desire to create a massive black-dominated industry here, might consider hemp, the non-drug kind that has been grown by humans for at least 10 000 years. The plant not only has extraordinary attributes, there is a growing market for it.

We already have a flourishing illegal agricultural industry growing hemp’s relative, dagga. Our dagga farmers are enterprising. They know how, where and when to plant it. They do this cheaply without expensive input. They know how to get their product to market.

Their distribution channels are in place. And they have a shrewd knowledge of the link between supply and demand, and their influence on the market price.

If our dagga farmers who generally apply their skills in poverty-stricken rural areas had a ready market for hemp, countless hours of police action would be unnecessary.

Sold on the world market, industrial quality hemp could be a rich source of foreign exchange, employing thousands of people who would otherwise clog up our jails and our judicial system.

In jail, dagga growers become hardened criminals. Far better to make them honest citizens, subject to taxation like the rest of us. Canada, for example had about 35 000 hectares under hemp last year, and our climate is more ideal.

When sailing ships needed rope that did not rot in sea air, the US Navy got a regular supply of hemp through a law making it compulsory for farmers to grow it. The US government even dictated how much land had to be allocated. No US farmers lay comatose in their fields.

In fact, if they grew their quota they could use it like cash. It was legal tender. They grew it happily. They were fined if they did not.

So hemp was used for rigging, for pendants, pennants, sails and oakum. Even Bibles were printed on hemp paper for sailors to take to sea. Then along came steel ships driven by steam and the hemp market dried up almost completely.

Hemp’s potent cousin was only banned in the early 20th century, South Africa being the first to do so under pressure from the mining industry. The allegation was that black miners preferred to “chill” after, and even before, the hard day’s work underground.

The South African ban, racially based as it undoubtedly was, paled before the racism that drove the ban in the US, which followed in 1937. Appalling and risible arguments were made against all hemp, regardless of the type. It was claimed to be responsible for “satanic” music, for making white women sleep with “negroes”. To cap this absurdity, it was claimed that it “makes darkies (sic) think they’re as good as white men” and that it led to “communist brainwashing”.

The result of the ban is that today the US imports hundreds of millions of dollars worth of hemp every year. A tiny amount of locally produced hemp is permitted under licence. And, as it is here, where there is a flourishing underground production of marijuana.

Hysterical and outrageous scare mongering inevitably attached to industrial hemp and this misinformation is today regarded as common knowledge.

Industrial hemp has thousands of uses. In Canada, there are dozens of research laboratories looking into hemp’s many attributes. The German car industry uses products made from it. Your BMW may even have a dashboard made from it – is it better than plastic, biodegradable and can be recycled.

In South Africa which imports R1 million of hemp every year, we also have some research going on in the Eastern and Western Cape, and under licence some hemp is grown locally, but nowhere near enough to meet industrial demand. And growing it has yet to take off in the Eastern Cape, where poverty is most acute.

The international market for hemp is growing at 23 percent a year according to some sources,

Some say hemp could replace cotton, which needs fertiliser. Hemp uses very little or none and is much less damaging to the soil. It grows faster and yields a crop every three months. What is more, hemp grows where other plants will not.

Hemp beats wood for making pulp. It also has longer, stronger fibres when woven. It makes such hardwearing cloth that in the past, people bequeathed their hemp shirts to grandchildren.

Henry Ford, for all his mad politics, made fuel for his cars, methanol, charcoal tar, pitch, ethyl acetate, and creosote – all from hemp. In World War II, the ban on growing hemp was lifted and a million acres was planted. That all ended after the war, but hemp growing continued to be legal until the 1960s when the ban was re-imposed.

Why continue to import tons every year when we know how to grow it, where to grow it, and have done for centuries?

What stops us is a mixture of reasons. Bureaucracy is one. Our Department of Agriculture sees hemp as a potentially valuable commercial crop. Our Department of Health seems not to know that hemp is different from dagga.

Nor does it know that if you grow the two together, hemp seriously reduces the quality of its drug-producing cousin, making it innocuous.

The result is inertia and a lost opportunity for our poor rural inhabitants still living within the old Bantustan boundaries and growing dagga for sale at the risk of imprisonment.

Hemp production is not the same as making drugs available to all and sundry. It is about jumping on an old bus fitted with a powerful new engine that is pulling away from the curb.

We are, as the Americans would say, “nuts” not to leap aboard. It will not be easy. There will always be a ready market for dagga, and for a while, the illegal trade in it will continue and grow, but if commercial farmers show that cash can be made by growing hemp, it is not inconceivable that dagga growers will follow.

A more powerful motive is that growing hemp could raise the standard of living of people living in poverty in our rural areas.

In any case, if France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal, and Romania can grow hemp legally, why can’t we without having to get a permit?

A start would be to change the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act, the Medicines and Related Substances Act, and the Environmental Conservation Act. The latter declares all hemp an invasive weed and none of our legislation differentiates between dagga and industrial hemp.

The political will is all we need to remove the legislative barriers to growing hemp for commercial purposes. The economic, tax-gathering and job-creation benefits of legalising hemp growing will follow. Keith Bryer is a retired communications consultant

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