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Hemp makes a comeback

Posted on October 5, 1996

VEN the most fervent American antidrugs campaigners risk finding some in their pockets when they travel abroad. Dried, rolled and smoked, the leaves of the cannabis, or hemp, plant yield a high from a banned substance called THC. Pounded, pulped and rolled (differently), they make a paper often used for cigarettes, and even some banknotes (although not dollars).

Hemp’s legal uses go well beyond tough, damp-resistant paper. Refined, the fibres can be woven into silky T-shirts that cost $100 or more; coarsely and more cheaply treated they make useful building materials, such as biodegradable shelters for refugee camps. The oil and juices are raw materials for, among other things, soap, washing powder and cosmetics; the seeds, toasted, are said by some to be a nice snack (although others reckon they taste suspiciously like bird foods.

Unfortunately for hemp-lovers (or “hempsters”), other products are cheaper (and in the case of snacks, nicer). In Germany, hemp products have carved out an up-market niche among greens: hemp cultivation normally requires little fertiliser or pesticide. But processing hemp plants requires a lot of hard manual work — soaking, beating, rubbing and combing to extract the fibres and get them supple — which makes it uneconomical in most western countries. This is a pity, since hemp thrives in climates like Germany’s (and is all the more attractive given an EU agricultural subsidy of DMi, Soo ($980) per hectare).

After much public lobbying, the German government this year grudgingly made the cultivation of a few species of hemp, all of which contain only negligible quantities of THC, legal again. And at the end of September, thousands gathered in Berlin to celebrate the first harvest festival and to hear about the latest technologies aimed at bringing their favourite fibres to the mass market.

These include some imaginative ideas for making hemp easier to produce. One technique involves dousing the hemp straw in bubbly water and firing ultrasound at it (the ultrasound causes the bubbles to implode, and the impact frees the fibres); another, from the Institute of Applied Research, in Reutlingen, uses steam pressure. Perhaps the most elegant involves fermentation: not only is the hemp reduced to its constituent fibre by bacteria, but the by-product, methane, can fuel a power station. Pilot projects are due to start shortly.

Some hempsters were less pleased to hear about a new detection device, Drugwipe, produced by Securetec, a firm in Munich. This small plastic stick, costing DM1o, can detect THC and some other drugs in the bloodstream simply by being placed on a suspect’s skin. This is fine for those who like hemp because it is kind to the environment, but a drag for those who admire its mood-altering properties.

(Photograph Omitted)
Captioned as: Bring on the, er, T-shirts

Copyright © 1996, Economist. All rights reserved.