This article explores the history of hemp, one of the oldest plants to be cultivated by human civilisation – from the plant’s familial, uneasy relationship with marijuana and hashish to the valuable crop’s recent resurgence in countries such as the US, Canada, the Netherlands and Israel.
As a toddler, I remember taking my first steps in the Vondelpark in Amsterdam. A charming, English landscape style garden with meandering paths and green lawns (including Keep-Off-The-Grass signs) protected by low garden fences. In 1968, when I was 18-years old, there was no escaping the smell of hashish in the city, and there was a perpetual stench of it hanging in the air of Vondelpark.
By then, the late 1960s, the park had turned into a free camping ground populated by hippies from around the world. Flower Power translated into ‘hanging around in front of a tent, singing and playing the guitar, smoking pot, and doing your business in the bushes’. The whole world seemed to disapprove of the Dutch policy of pragmatic tolerance towards marijuana use and possession.
Tourists from around the world flocked to the Netherlands to visit one of the many ‘coffee shops’ and buy and smoke cannabis products. As a member of the International Convention relating to dangerous drugs, the Dutch government has always had trouble defending this policy to nearly all foreign countries in the world.
Cannabis but also opium and cocaine have been used as medicines for centuries. In the 19th century Asia, the production and trade of opium was stimulated by the colonial countries as Great Britain, the Netherlands and France. These nations used it to barter trade in Persia, India, China and in Indonesia, for instance, to finance their mercenaries. And cocaine was produced in significant quantities in Western Europe. The Netherlands, for example, hosted the Dutch Cocaine Factory (NCF=Nederlandsche Cocainefabriek) a world market leader making up 20 per cent of the cocaine production worldwide until 1925.
In the 19th century, many Chinese became addicted to opium, bringing disruption to the whole society and leading to the notorious opium wars between China and Great Britain.
In 1909, the USA took the initiative to organise an international conference in Shanghai, which eventually resulted in the International Opium Treaty of 1912, signed in the Hague (the Netherlands) by China, USA, Germany, France, UK, Japan, the Netherlands, Persia, Portugal, Russia and Siam (Thailand). It went into force in 1919 when it was incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles. In Geneva, in 1925, there was a revised International Opium Convention related to Dangerous Drugs, supplementing the prohibition on hashish to the convention with the following text: “The use of Indian hemp and the preparations derived therefrom may only be authorised for medical and scientific purposes.”
It continues, that hemp products for other uses (read consumption) “may not be produced, sold, traded in, etc.. under any circumstances whatsoever.”
Together with flax and cotton, hemp is one of the oldest agricultural crops, and there are record finds of 10,000-year old seeds. Hemp is an essential product in more than 25,000 commercial products for clothing, uniforms, socks, blankets, insolation, package, soap, lotions, balms, salves, pet food, automotive industry, bio fuels, bio plastics oil wells, jewellery /crafts.
Why were these products forbidden for consumption? These products are powerfully addictive to humans. They can cause hallucinating effects (with THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, being the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects), which means the user can lose control over reality. Probably this reaction is the reason why these products were given to soldiers to forget about the horrors of the Great War.
Today, an increasing number of consumers are discovering the vital health effects of the consumption of cannabis. The most known active substances in hemp are CBD (cannabinoid) and THC. As THC gives the hallucinating results, most countries allow only products with a maximum of 0.3 per cent THC. Insiders expect to find many more effective medicines through more research and say that we are only at the beginning.
Some states in the USA have allowed the production and consumption of hemp, and in 2018 Canada allowed the production and consumption use of hemp with the Industrial Hemp Regulations (SOR/2018-145). A breakthrough.
More recently, the value of cannabis has been reevaluated. In 2018, global turnover (at the farm level) was US$ 2.7 billion and is expected to grow to US$ 5.7 billion in 2020.
The production area in 2018 covered around 500,000 ha and is expected to grow to 800,000 ha this year. The world’s major production areas are in the US, Canada, China, and Europe.
Twelve years ago, Bob Hoban, a young lawyer and professor at Denver University, realised the importance of cannabis for medicines and founded his law firm Hoban Law Group (HLG) in Denver. Hoban says, “HLG is a full-service commercial cannabis industry law firm, serving both the regulated marijuana industry and the industrial hemp industry. We are notorious around the world for our ability to provide solutions to highly complex and routine issues faced by canna-businesses and supply chain operations. The cannabis industry is all that we do. At HLG, we take our role as service providers, the high-quality of work for clients, and our role in advancing the global cannabis industry extremely seriously.”
Hoban says his customer base is made up of businesses large and small, from established industry titans to early-stage start-ups worldwide. When asked about his vision on the legislation of the cannabis industry and its future he says, “The HLG group of attorneys are industry pioneers responsible for developing legal strategies and advancing litigation for clients in critical areas that have contributed to the growth of this nascent industry. We are laying the groundwork for a new global commodity. We have only just scratched the surface of the cannabis plant’s potential and how its seemingly endless applications will fit into industrial supply chains across countries verticals as versatile, sustainable alternative material. What we’re doing as lawyers, in lockstep with colleagues around the globe, is connecting the dots to define the cannabis industry so that we can further provide policy at all levels of government and advance both the industry and the collective consciousness.”
One of the early adopters in Canada is the Humboldt Industries Ltd who recognised the R&D potential of Perfect Plants and took over the company two years ago. FCI spoke to the president and COO of Humboldt Industries, Wayne Nathanson and the general director of Perfect Plants, Peter Olsthoorn and his right-hand quality controller and R&D manager Rik Niemöller.
Nathanson comments. “We saw the similarity between hemp and cannabis, and we realised the importance to R&D. Our company likes to invest further in new research to create new medicines and medical purposes by using cannabis. Much progress can happen through R&D in the coming years. We expect the industry to double every five years and we see that only as a start of this industry.”
Peter Olsthoorn adds, “Since 1980, Pothos Plant –which is now operating under the brandname Perfect Plants – focused on R&D through breeding and tissue culture propagating. Always we start with healthy and new products focusing on the needs of the consumer. We recognise the value of healthy climates in houses and offices with the Spatiphylium brought to the market under the trademark Air so Pure. Together with Humboldt, we can expand our R&D to concentrate on the genes and the active ingredients in cannabis varieties which can deal with specific illnesses. We were already specialising in our R&D strains to look after the genes with these ingredients.”
Nathanson notes, “Together with Perfect Plants, Humboldt has the ambition to make the Netherlands not only important and known for their greenhouse vegetables and ornamentals but also for being the epicentre of medicinal cannabis products.”
A fast newcomer on the market is the country of Israel. Israel realises the importance of medical cannabis and sees a flourishing industry to produce all kind of new medicines based on cannabis. Export of these medicines will increase in importance so the cannabis industry will become valuable in the coming years.
A new law expects to pass in the Knesset to allow recreational consumption in Israel this year. So, we spoke with Cannarava president Eyal Policar. He notes, “Our position is half-way between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea in Moshav Zofar off route 90. We founded our cannabis nursery in 2018. The founders include Eyal, my son Gahl, Eyal’s son in law Mor, and CEO Tal Frank. Gahl has five years’ experience running a cannabis nursery in California, Mor is a lawyer and helped with the applications and licenses to grow and trade and export medical cannabis.”
Cannarava produces indoors in fully acclimatised conditions on a surface of 6,000m². Policar elaborates, “The nursery uses the latest benching technology to move the crop to and through different climate zones. Also, Cannarava greenhouses are fitted with LED lightning and an HVAC system (heating, ventilation, air-conditioning) installed by a company specialising in room temperature control, especially in hospital rooms. Now we produce three tonnes on an annual basis, and we are expanding to six tonnes next year. With our staff, composed of experienced farmers of the Moshav, we plant and harvest every day guaranteeing a continuous supply.”
In Israel, already 50,000 patients count on medicines of cannabis. New reforms in the laws will double these figures. Policar adds, “We sell to pharmacies in Israel. But we will develop our brands because our goal is to export to Europe. We are undergoing EU-GMP validations, so we expect to be ready for exports in 2021.”
Policar’s ambition is to establish a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant based on high-grade buds to produce APci (active pharma cannabis ingredients) to supply different pharma clients for different needs, be it in oil, tincture, wax or solvents.
Walhalla for R&D
Hemp is an easy and cheap growing product. Cannabis has all kind of characteristics hardly known today. It is a prosperous ‘Walhalla’ for R&D. Hemp cleans the soil from all kinds of nasty pollutions. In the Tjernobil area, hemp is grown to clean the ground as it does on polluted mine areas. Hemp is one of the best CO² catchers and even bees living in a hemp field do not give their larvae the deadly bacteria that kills so many populations today.
All parts of the hemp plants can be used commercially: as feed-stock but also in stables for the animals to rest on, the sap as biofuel, the cells and the stalks for clothing (extremely heat resistant), the leaves as pet food, the flowers (try and smoke them, and you realise), the seeds for food. The number of medicines producing from hemp seems endless and will grow year after year.
Hemp, cannabis and marijuana: what’s the difference
In the United States, marijuana is defined as any Cannabis sativa plant that has greater than 0.3 percent THC. THC, short for tetrahydrocannabinol, is the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis. The more THC you consume, the more changes you will notice in your cognition and how you feel. In essence, THC gets you “high.” Hemp plants are defined as any cannabis plant that has 0.3 percent or less THC. Even a plant with 0.4 percent THC would be classified as a marijuana plant, in spite of the fact that 0.4 percent isn’t going to have a noticeable psychoactive effect.
The Cannabaceae family
Taxonomically speaking, hemp is a member of the Cannabaceae family with the genus Cannabis comprising three species: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica and Cannabis ruderalis. Another economically important member of the Cannabaceae family is hops (Humulus), used to produce beer. There are more than 170 commercial hemp varieties and this number is growing rapidly.