Being driven through a village in the northern Netherlands I was idly staring out the window when I suddenly realised what I was seeing … so the next time we went that way, my host kindly stopped the car, chuckling at how the photos would seemingly reinforce the image of the Dutch being drug liberals.
A hemp crop growing by the roadside in northern Netherlands. Photo: Sandra Simpson
However, what we were looking at wasn’t marijuana but hemp. What’s the difference? Hemp is farmed for its fibre, while marijuana is, well, still an illegal drug in a lot of places, despite the inroads of the medical variety.
Both plants have the same botanical name – Cannabis sativa – but levels of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which causes most of marijuana’s psychological effects are very low in hemp. “Hemp also has high cannabidiol (CBD) content that acts as THC’s antagonist, essentially making the minimal amount of THC useless,” according to the Ministry of Hemp website.
That website helpfully notes that the plants also look different, hemp being taller and thinner, are grown differently (hemp plants, as the photo shows, can be grown very close together), and have different climate needs.
And if any bright spark should plant some marijuana in amongst the hemp, thinking it won’t be spotted, it’s bad news – hemp pollen will destroy marijuana’s THC levels.
The Netherlands has long had a reputation for liberal drug laws – cannabis cafes and so on – but this has been changing since about 2005 and Dutch police hunt out cannabis crops, much as they do in New Zealand.
Cannabis sativa – hemp. Photo: Sandra Simpson
The Dutch also have a long history of growing hemp, thought to be one of the world’s oldest crops. European navies – such as the Dutch, British and French – long used the fibre to make rope, paper, sails and clothing, while oil made from the seeds was used as a food and to fuel lamps.
In the 16th century, Henry VIII encouraged farmers to plant the crop to provide material for the Royal Navy – rigging, pennants, sails, and oakum were all made from hemp fibre and oil, while hemp paper was used for maps, logs and Bibles.
Unfortunately for hemp, politicians of the 1960s didn’t differentiate between it and marijuana and blanket bans came into place. In 1994 several farmers were contracted to grow 140ha of hemp in the Netherlands, making it the largest cultivation in the country for 60 years.
Since 2001 hemp has been grown under licence in New Zealand. Read an article about the experiences of Canterbury farmers. The law was once again reviewed in 2018 and Parliament’s webpage includes a useful Q&A.
The former New Zealand Green Party MP Nandor Tánczos famously wore a hemp suit to Parliament during his tenure (1999-2008) but these days the fibre is making a comeback, thanks to its (small g) green credentials.
Denim, Made Good is a collaboration between New Zealand online store Well Made Clothes and clothing label Good Studios to create a line of jeans made from hemp, which they say is one of the world’s most sustainable fibres.
“Hemp doesn’t need any insecticides or pesticides to grow and it requires 50% less water to grow than cotton. We’ve also used nickel-free domes, recycled zips, and paper labels, so every component of these jeans has as little environmental impact as possible.”
Update: A recent newspaper article has alerted me to the fact that hemp seed became legal to use in food products in New Zealand in November 2018. Apparently some 30 nations are producing industrial hemp including Australia, Spain, Austria, Canada and China.
Cameron Sims, of hemp specialist Plant Culture, says hemp is the most nutrient-dense seed in the world. Christchurch-based company The Brothers Green will from April 2019 supply hemp-based snack bars and hemp flour to all the South Island’s New World supermarkets.