ONE of the most compelling reasons for fewer laws is that there are also fewer unintended consequences. Almost every law causes problems that were never anticipated.
A good example is the impact on the cultivation of industrial hemp due to the prohibition of marijuana. An opportunity for farmers to profit from a crop with a significant potential market is unavailable because of a misguided policy of zero tolerance towards drugs.
Although industrial varieties of cannabis sativa do not contain sufficient THC to be used as a drug, they are regulated with almost the same level of stringency as the ones that do. The Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association recently complained that there are more rules around growing industrial hemp than for growing opium poppies.
Hemp has been used for centuries to make products such as rope and durable clothing. Its fibres are commonly blended with flax, cotton or silk for apparel and furnishings. The woody inner fibres are used in non-woven items and other industrial applications such as mulch, animal bedding and litter. Modern day uses include paper, textiles, clothing, biodegradable plastics, construction, body products and bio-fuel.
The oil from the seeds is sometimes used in the manufacture of oil-based paints, as a moisturising cream, for cooking, and in plastics. The seeds are also used for animal feed (mainly for birds) and as a fishing bait.
Hemp can also be used in human food products. Its seeds and oil are used in a range of foods including health bars, salad oils, non-soy tofu, non-dairy cheeses, and as an additive to baked goods, as well as being used as the whole seed, raw or roasted.
The world-leading producer of hemp is China, with smaller production in Europe, Chile and North Korea. Over thirty countries produce industrial hemp including Austria, Canada, Chile, China, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, India, Italy, Japan, Korea, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey and Ukraine.
Despite being used as a food in countries such as Europe, Canada, the US and even New Zealand, hemp cannot be sold as a food in Australia. This fact, together with the red tape governing cultivation of the crop, makes commercial production largely non-viable. Hundreds of tonnes of hemp seed are imported for non-food purposes while Australian farmers are largely excluded from diversifying into the crop.
The source of this problem is political. Politicians are fixated on the idea that growing cannabis, even non-drug varieties, “sends the wrong message”. The obvious failure of laws to prevent the widespread cultivation and consumption of marijuana for recreational purposes changes no minds. As South Park’s Mr Garrison would say, it is simply a matter of “drugs are bad, mkay.”
Industrial and food opportunities for hemp are not the only casualties of this blind prejudice. Also excluded from consideration is the use of marijuana for medical purposes, where its properties have been known at least as long as its industrial uses. Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung wrote of the medicinal properties of the cannabis plant in the 28th century BC. The ancient Egyptians used medical cannabis extensively four thousand years ago, and the diuretic, antiemetic, antiepileptic, anti-inflammatory, analgesic and antipyretic effects of cannabis were well known in medieval medicine.
In the early 20th century, before it was banned, numerous tonics and tinctures containing cannabis extract were available. More recently, studies have confirmed the effectiveness of the active ingredients for treating conditions such as glaucoma, migraine and arthritis, providing relief from chronic pain associated with degenerative diseases and spinal injuries, and alleviating the unpleasant side effects of common treatments for cancer and HIV/AIDS.
Its relative safety, long recognised in folk wisdom, has also been borne out by research. When taken as an oral tincture, cannabis-based therapies are not only safe for children but beneficial in treating the frequency and severity of seizures associated with childhood epilepsy.
Moreover, public opinion is in favour of medical uses.
The 2007 National Drug Strategy Household Survey reported that 70 per cent of respondents were in favour of legalising marijuana for medicinal purposes while 75pc were in favour of further clinical trials. In 2013 the NSW Legislative Council’s inquiry into the use of cannabis for medical purposes concluded there was sufficiently robust evidence to support its use as a treatment option for certain conditions.
Medical marijuana is already legal in Austria, Canada, Finland, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, and under state laws in more than twenty US states. In two of those, Colorado and Washington, recreational use is also legal.
It is abundantly clear our regulators need to catch up with the reality of both industrial hemp and medical marijuana.
A key question is whether these uses can or should be legalised separately from recreational use. Cultivation for either industrial or medicinal use, in the absence of legal recreational use, would require the creation of vast new bureaucracies and extensive law enforcement. Farmers would have to be licensed and monitored while doctors and pharmacists would be significantly regulated. The costs would inevitably be huge with huge incentives for illegal production and the continued involvement of organised crime.
A much easier approach would be to completely deregulate marijuana cultivation and adult use, as Washington and Colorado have already done. That would also allow it to be grown for industrial and food use, and facilitate the emergence of a whole new industry based on medical applications. Equally, it would avoid the need for additional bureaucracy and prevent the benefits being monopolised by a small number of big businesses.
And of course, it would give farmers the right to legally grow a crop for which there is considerable demand.