Deregulation of hemp production is long overdue

It is madness, not reefer madness, to keep hemp on the Canadian list of restricted crops.

Low THC hemp is often referred to as a form of marijuana, with all the gravity that giggling about it will allow. But for Canadian farmers, the restriction is no laughing matter. It’s a restriction on a potential crop.

About 80,000 acres of industrial hemp were grown in Canada last year by 732 farmers. Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario lead the way in production.

Most of those acres were harvested for their cannabidiol (CBD) oil and for commercial seed, and it is also grown for fibre.

Each of those producers, and another 500 or so who are also registered to grow it, had to undergo a criminal record check and provide a detailed plan of production and handling. While this weeds out the competition, it also restricts economies of scale that would attract more processors and buyers.

Like many regulatory and risk management pieces of the national farm economy puzzle, it keeps Canada from striding toward that $70 billion in agriculture and food exports goal that the federal government touts so readily when making budget announcements.

Given that the sale of actual marijuana is legal in this country, how can government take seriously any restrictions on commodity hemp?

Canadian hemp associations want the federal government to deregulate hemp and go beyond the recent softening of Health Canada rules on its use to produce cannabidiol health products. They claim there is nearly $1 billion worth of new farm products waiting to be rolled into the rest of Canada’s agricultural markets.

The potential for 350,000 acres of crop in rotation might not seem like much but it provides another choice for farmers who are constantly seeking new opportunities to spread risk and remain sustainable.

The World Health Organization’s expert committee on drug dependence and the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs already recommend deregulation.

Canadian government officials often claim that current hemp regulations keep this country in step with our American cousins. The underlying threat is that farmers, processors and, more importantly, lenders might find themselves in Dutch with American authorities for being involved in the drug trade.

Not so long ago that could have resulted in financial forfeitures, restricted travel or worse. Unpredictability was a concern until the last American Farm Bill in late 2018, when the U.S. government deregulated hemp.

However, American producers still face challenges because some states allow cultivation and others forbid it. News stories abound of American truckers and farmers being arrested for hemp transport and production, with vehicles and cargos confiscated due to a patchwork of regulations.

Globally a number of countries’ farm groups are calling for the crop to be deregulated, including Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, the European Union and Japan. Adding to the difficulties, processors have to zigzag through myriad international rules to reach buyers.

For nearly 20 years plant breeders in Western Canada have been breeding regionally suited hemp genetics at Innotech in Vegreville, Alta. University of Saskatchewan researchers have been mapping the cannabis genome while the University of Manitoba has cooked up hemp coffee creamers and snack foods. At UBC researchers are working “to make cannabis research ordinary” and at the University of Guelph the work has long been in its pipeline for renewable fuel and fibre.

Canada has potential with this crop and the federal government should move quickly to fully deregulate hemp. It is one more step on the path to $70 billion in agricultural exports.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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