MARK Coulton is backing moves to legalise industrial hemp products to help boost regional economics and generate jobs - and the NSW Nationals MP is also at ease with the more popular push to legalise cannabis for medicinal purposes.
“I do have a view on medicinal cannabis - for the record - if it is obviously having beneficial effects on terminally ill people then we should not be denying those people the right to that medication,” he said last week in the House of Representatives.
Mr Coulton said industrial hemp is an entirely different crop that goes back thousands of years but suffers greatly because of its appearance.
“It looks pretty well much the same as a cannabis plant, but it does not have the same qualities as, or affect humans in the same way as, the drug cannabis,” he said.
“Hemp can be used in various ways. The seed can be harvested at the same time for oils, lubricants, biodiesel and health foods. The herb, which is the inner stalk, can be combined with other materials to create building materials. The bast, the outer stalk, can be used in composites to replace plastic and can be further treated to produce a fabric that is very durable and has lots of qualities. Finally, the leaves can be used as stockfeed.”
However, Mr Coulton said it is currently illegal in NSW to sell industrial hemp seed as food; a law which needs revisiting.
“I understand the reasons why up until this point it has been so, but I think this issue needs another look,” he said.
“In my electorate in the Macquarie Valley there is a group of farmers investigating growing hemp. It uses less water per hectare than cotton and is a great rotation crop.
“It is deep-rooted and certainly frees up the soil for further crops.
“Because of the diversity of the product, the potential for employment in regional areas in value-adding what comes through is quite large.
“The problem is you need to grow enough in the first place to have the infrastructure to produce the end products.
“So we need to have not one or two farmers growing this crop; we need to have a few growing it on the first occasion so we have a critical mass.
“It has huge potential for job creation.”
Mr Coulton said the Macquarie 2100 group - a group of Landcare community organisations – was keen to progress the possibilities of growing hemp. He plans to visit Narromine this week to meet with a group of farmers at a public forum to discuss the possibility of growing hemp.
“I understand the difficulties in the past but I do not think that is a good enough reason not to pursue the possibilities,” he said.
“In a time when we need to help farmers become viable and also look at crops that are more sustainable and environmentally friendly, I believe that hemp certainly has the ability to fill that gap.”
In August, Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie and Victorian independent MP Cathy McGowan called on the federal government, via new legislation, to “champion” changes to the Food Standards Code administered by Food Standards Australia New Zealand to permit hemp sales for human consumption in Australia.
The two MPs also co-signed a letter to Prime Minister Tony Abbott asking him to end the “deadlock” on the approval of industrial hemp for human consumption.
In 2012, (FSANZ) recommended the product’s approval for human consumption – but Australia and New Zealand are the only countries in the western world still restricting the market.
Mr Wilkie said restrictions have frustrated farmers who want access to a growing market worth many millions of dollars in countries including Britain, Canada and the US.