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Hemp has a bad rap for being the marijuana plant. But on Russian scientist is proposing a drug-free variety to put naysayers at ease while providing material for clothing and oil for cooking

August 18, 2006|By ERIKA NIEDOWSKI | ERIKA NIEDOWSKI,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA — ST. PETERSBURG, RussiaThe sign on Sergei Grigoryev's office door says "Narcobaron," or drug baron, over a faint picture of a marijuana leaf. That's his way of weathering the joshing he gets for doing nothing more than showing up for work each day.

After all, Grigoryev promotes hemp.

The scientist at the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg is quick to draw a distinction between the connotations the word brings to mind - pot, weed, maryjane, hashish, ganja, herb, chronic - and the plant he calls one of the most valuable ever cultivated.

He's equally swift to point out, even without being asked, that he has never used the drug himself. "I have access to marijuana," he says matter-of-factly. "I've never tried it. It's not interesting for me."

His interest is in the hemp plant's lesser-known and, in his view, utterly unappreciated potential: to make fiber and produce oil.

And after decades of research and experimental plant engineering, he thinks he has found a way to make those who have long rejected hemp embrace it instead: by growing a drug-free version.

Grigoryev and his colleagues at the institute, where scientists have collected hemp from around the globe since 1922, produce a cannabis plant that contains only trace elements of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC - the psychoactive ingredient that gives marijuana smokers their high.

Grigoryev imagines a Russia with hundreds of thousands of acres of hemp fields, as there were in the early days of the Soviet Union. He sees a Russia where more people don clothing crafted from hemp, as peasants traditionally did. He visualizes a Russia where hemp oil - rich in essential fatty acids and reputed to improve skin problems and ease inflammation from arthritis - is not just a supplement for health-conscious hippies.

Unlike the United States, Russia allows the farming of so-called industrial hemp, which already contains low levels of THC. In fact, the United States is the only industrialized nation that doesn't allow it, according to Vote Hemp, an American nonprofit working to change the law.

But even industrial hemp is no longer grown widely here: Russia has no more than 25,000 acres, compared with 2 million in 1925.

The modern industrial crop has at times drawn unwelcome attention from Russian federal drug authorities. A few years ago, they forced farmers in the Penza and Belgorod regions to burn some of their fields, Grigoryev said, even though they weren't breaking the law.

The Federal Drug Control Service insists it doesn't oppose industrial hemp. But at a recent conference, one official responded to Grigoryev's plan to expand production by suggesting the fields might become filled with marijuana - and turn into a kind of heaven for those who want a high.

"We try to explain that there is a big difference," says Grigoryev, adding that he has received "indirect pressure" to stop his research (he declined to say where it came from).

Other critics of industrial hemp charge that it's a cover for the effort to legalize marijuana, which is made from the dried leaves and flowers of the hemp plant and has a higher concentration of THC.

Grigoryev doesn't support legalization. On the contrary, he says, wider cultivation of industrial hemp containing no THC could ultimately drive drug hemp out of existence as pollen from the industrial variety crosses with drug hemp, effectively "diluting" it.

Hemp, which is said to have originated in central Asia, has been grown in Russia since the 11th century, according to Grigoryev, who has hanging in his office a variety of hemp fiber samples that resemble horse tails.

"It's twice as old as Egyptian civilization," he says.

In the mid-18th century, Russia sent 32,000 tons of hemp abroad, making it one of the country's largest exports. Peasants who labored in the fields wore hemp clothing because it was amazingly durable. Hemp oil was their main source of edible fats, as beef and pork fats were a luxury.

Hemp likewise was planted by British colonists in the New World. Drafts of the Declaration of Independence were said to have been written on paper made from hemp. Grigoryev quotes Thomas Jefferson, a noted agronomist, in defense of his plan to bring back industrial hemp: "The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture," Jefferson wrote.

In a way, the case Grigoryev makes for the mass production of industrial hemp is strictly economic. In an article last year in the Journal of Industrial Hemp, Grigoryev explained that Russia imports nearly 700,000 tons of cotton fiber each year, mostly from Uzbekistan, to support its textile industry.

He thinks this is foolish, when more hemp could be grown domestically and used to produce clothing fashioned from a cotton-hemp blend. This, he says, would create jobs and boost textile manufacturing.

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