Marijuana eyed as Canadian cash crop

May 23, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

TILLSONBURG, Ontario -- Joe Strobel dreams marijuana dreams.

It's not what you think.

In Mr. Strobel's dream, the tobacco fields sloping up from the north shore of Lake Erie -- his fields and those of his neighbors -- are patched with dense stands of cannabis sativa ruffling in the wind. And it's all legal.

The Canadian government is poised to make Mr. Strobel's dream come true, perhaps as early as this summer.

For Mr. Strobel's marijuana -- or hemp, as he prefers to call it -- would be so low in tetrahydrocanna binol, or THC, the active ingredient in pot, that no one could get high smoking it. Instead, Mr. Strobel and the 11 other Ontario farmers in his consortium plan to sell their hemp fiber for processing into paper, rope, building materials and maybe even shirts and caps.

These would-be hemp growers, and others like them from the Great Lakes to the Canadian Rockies, are beneficiaries of a surging international movement on behalf of low-THC hemp, powered by an unlikely coalition of environmentalists, entrepreneurs, farmers and, yes, advocates of legalized pot.

The Canadian officials are listening. The ruling Liberal Party is sponsoring legislation that would license hemp growing throughout Canada.

"Farmers in Canada are very interested in it. It's an excellent commercial and industrial type of crop; it's high in fiber; it's an excellent alternative to [growing] tobacco. . . . It has a great deal of potential," Health Minister Diane Marleau said.

She said the bill, which would closely regulate hemp growers, could get final approval in the House of Commons this year and then would go to the Canadian Senate.

Canada would follow a number of European and Asian countries, most recently Britain, in legalizing cultivation of low-THC hemp.

Advocates of the plant, often sporting "Hemp Can Save the Planet" buttons, get rapturous about its attributes.

Not only is it the environmentally correct alternative to lumber and wood pulp, they say, but you can cook with hemp oil, fabricate hemp into particle board, combine it with old plastic milk containers and mold it into two-by-fours, burn it as fuel, feed the seeds to your pet and even make it into cigarette paper.

"This will grow anywhere, all the way from Canada down to most of the U.S., if not all of the U.S. This is the finest thing we could be growing to replace forest," said George Tyson, general manager of Xymax 2001, a Montrose, Kan., company that has contracted with Mr. Strobel's farmers to convert hemp fiber into building material.

"It's the environmental answer, and it's the agriculture answer," Mr. Tyson said.

FTC Those on the business end of the budding hemp industry are more circumspect. While acknowledging the attractions of low-THC hemp, they say the economics of growing and processing it on a large scale in North America remain unproven. The leading hemp processor in Britain still sells it mainly to stables as horse bedding.

But there's no shortage of interest among Canada's recession-pummeled farmers. Fiona Briody, director of an Alberta crop development association that has a hemp license request pending, has been astonished by the number of growers in Western Canada seemingly ready to try it.

"It's spread all over the prairie like wildfire. I can't believe how many farmers are interested in it," she said.

Among the backers of legalizing hemp here are the Sierra Club of Eastern Canada, among other environmental organizations, a handful of grass-roots organizations and a few adventuresome business people.

But Mr. Strobel, a lively, 65-year-old retired physical education teacher, has become the hemp movement's top salesman. He brings to the crusade the kind of bouncy enthusiasm that once led him to develop a fitness program called the Health Hustle, which has beenadopted by schools throughout Canada and in parts of the United States.

"Let's face it, we farmers have an economic problem and this might be an out, so people are pretty receptive," he said. "We know it can be grown here, because it's been grown here before, [and] . . . the potential is about unlimited. Somewhere it will pay off."

While Mr. Strobel acknowledges the debt he owes to the pro-pot crowd, who made him aware of the potential of hemp, he stresses that the kind of cannabis that he wants to grow should not be confused with what he calls "the happy stuff." Although it is of the same species, cannabis grown for hemp has been specially developed in Europe through selective breeding.

The hemp cannabis is planted in great density, with an emphasis on tall stalks, much like sugar cane, and might not be recognized as marijuana. Cannabis grown as marijuana is planted at wider intervals with an emphasis on developing leaves, seeds and flowers.

But the main difference is the low-THC factor of commercial stocks. The pending law in Canada would call for testing seed and plantsto ensure that THC content is no higher than 0.3 percent. THC concentrations in marijuana generally range from about 3 percent to more than 5 percent, according to the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Those who want to legalize the drug say they back the hemp movement out of environmental concerns and the assumption that acceptance of legalized, low-THC hemp eventually would erode the ban on the high-TCH variety. The law that would authorize growth of low-THC hemp would also toughen penalties for marijuana use.

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