Hemp farmers hope for new markets

Hemp thrives in Switzerland Keystone Archive

The proposed change in Switzerland's law on narcotics could be a business opportunity for Swiss hemp farmers.

This content was published on June 23, 2002 - 10:31

In September, parliament will consider a draft law to decriminalise the consumption of cannabis. But the finer details of the law covering the growing and selling of cannabis or hemp plants and their products have yet to be worked out.

At the moment growing, selling, buying and consuming hemp as a drug are all illegal in Switzerland. In practice, though, Swiss police often turn a blind eye to cannabis consumption, preferring instead to crack down on the trade in hard drugs such as heroin.

Hemp shops, selling products such as hemp shampoo or beer, are common in Swiss towns, and hemp is becoming an increasingly popular crop for farmers.

Crucial THC content

But the kind of hemp grown is still a very important legal issue. The crucial question is how much tetrahydrocanabinol, or THC, the hemp contains. THC is the chemical which gives the "high", and at the moment only hemp containing less than 0.3 per cent of THC is legal for human consumption.

For André Furst, who has a hemp farm in Murten, staying within the law can prove tricky. Furst refuses to be drawn on the THC content of his hemp, insisting only that it is produced naturally.

"Of course you can smoke my hemp," Furst told swissinfo. "But at the moment I send people away who want to buy it for smoking; I don't want trouble with the authorities."

Furst is right to be wary; while Swiss police may tolerate the individual cannabis smoker, farmers with field after field of hemp plants are more vulnerable. If they are suspected of selling their crops for drug use, they are likely to have their hemp confiscated and destroyed.

Furst instead concentrates on other hemp products; his farm in fact is something of a shrine to hemp. He sells building insulation made from hemp, and small chalet style bungalows constructed entirely from hemp. Even his tractor runs on hemp oil.

"We produce animal feed from hemp as well", Furst explained. "The pigs love it."

Legal headache

Furst is hoping the new law will allow him to sell his hemp legally to people who want to smoke it. But, so far, the only definite proposal is to decriminalise the private consumption of cannabis.

Martin Buechi of the Swiss Federal Health Office is part of a team drafting the new law, and he agrees it's becoming something of a headache.

"Right now cannabis is a forbidden plant in Switzerland," Buechi told swissinfo. "And it will remain a forbidden plant. What we are thinking about is simply tolerating a certain amount of planting and selling."

Tolerance however is not something that can be written into legislation, and Buechi knows the new law could end up being as inefficient as the present one.

"It's simply not logical to say if you smoke something it's OK, but if you sell it it's forbidden," Buechi said. "Somehow we have to find a way of solving this, but we can't actually legalise cannabis itself, because of international regulations."

Controls for business

Buechi points out that some kind of recognised regulation of the trade in hemp will be needed, if only to keep the revenue out of the hands of criminals and money launderers.

"This is an important issue which tends to be overlooked," he explained. "So it may be that we will have approved hemp farmers, and approved hemp retailers, whose accounts will be regularly inspected by the authorities."

Controlling the trade of a product like this is similar to the way most countries regulate trade in things like alcohol and tobacco - it's a structure designed to make it easy to raise taxes on such products.

But Buechi doesn't think revenue from the trade in cannabis - estimated at SFr2 billion a year in Switzerland alone - will be flowing into the coffers of the Swiss government any time soon.

"We still don't really know where we are going with this," he said. "The main thing we want to do is control production and prevent importation."

High THC content

Nevertheless Swiss hemp farmers seem to be gearing up for the potential new market. At the university of Bern, pharmacologist Professor Rudolf Brenneisen has analysed some of the most recent hemp crops, and discovered that the all important THC content has rocketed.

"It's quite astonishing," Brenneisen told swissinfo. "We are seeing THC contents of 20, even 25 per cent. A few years ago when we measured THC we had an average of two to three per cent, with maximum levels of seven or eight per cent."

Brenneisen warns however that cannabis consumers who are attracted to such high THC levels could be in for a shock.

"25 per cent is really too high," he said. "You won't get a pleasant feeling of relaxation with that, you're more likely to have hallucinations or even psychosis."

But Brenneisen agrees the high THC levels are an indication that hemp farmers are hoping for a new market for their product.

"It's true that there really isn't a lot of money in low THC or industrial hemp," he said. "You make money with the drug type hemp."

Farmers hoping for clarity

What farmers like André Furst are hoping for is a new law which allows them to sell hemp or cannabis with a higher THC content to people who freely admit they want to smoke it.

"It would be much easier for us if the law was clear on this point," said Furst. "We don't need a law which criminalises a third of the population for using a drug that isn't harmful."

But Furst, who admits to being a regular consumer of cannabis himself - "it helps me sleep at night," he says - also has his eye on the business opportunities.

"A new law which allows farmers to sell cannabis as a drug could open some very profitable possibilities for us," he said.

But Martin Buechi of the federal health office warns farmers against over optimism.

"I certainly would not advise farmers to start switching over to hemp," he said. "It's quite possible that consumers will simply grow their own cannabis in their apartments."

And Buechi points out that, even if Switzerland does intend to make cannabis consumption legal, the federal health office has no desire to encourage the habit.

"There are still a lot of things we don't know about cannabis, he said. "We need to do more research, but we do know that smoking it is not a healthy thing to do."

by Imogen Foulkes

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