Joe Strobel dreams marijuana dreams.
Wait, it’s not what you think.
In Strobel’s dream, the tobacco fields sloping up from the north shore of Lake Erie--his fields and those of his neighbors--are patched with dense stands of Cannabis sativa ruffling in the wind. And it’s all legal.
The Canadian government is poised to make Strobel’s dream come true, perhaps as early as this summer.
For Strobel’s marijuana--or hemp, as he prefers to call it--would be so low in THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the active ingredient in pot, that no one could get high smoking it. Instead, Strobel and the 11 other Ontario farmers in his consortium plan to sell their hemp fiber for processing into paper, rope, building materials and maybe even shirts and caps.
These would-be hemp growers, and others like them from the Great Lakes to the Canadian Rockies, are beneficiaries of a surging international movement on behalf of low-THC hemp, powered by an unlikely coalition of environmentalists, entrepreneurs, farmers and, yes, advocates of legalized pot.
Canadian officials are listening. The ruling Liberal Party is sponsoring legislation that would license hemp growing throughout Canada.
“Farmers in Canada are very interested in it. It’s an excellent commercial and industrial type of crop. It’s high in fiber, it’s an excellent alternative to (growing) tobacco. . . . It has a great deal of potential,” Health Minister Diane Marleau said in an interview.
She said the bill, which would closely regulate hemp growers, could get final approval in the House of Commons this year and then would go to the Canadian Senate.
Canada would follow a number of European and Asian countries, most recently Britain, in legalizing cultivation of low-THC hemp.
Advocates of the plant, often sporting “Hemp Can Save the Planet” buttons, get rapturous about its attributes.
Not only is it the environmentally correct alternative to lumber and wood pulp, they say, but you can cook with hemp oil, fabricate it into particle board, combine it with old plastic milk containers and mold it into two-by-fours, burn it as fuel, feed the seeds to your pet and even make it into, ahem, cigarette paper.
“This will grow anywhere, all the way from Canada down to most of the U.S., if not all of the U.S. This is the finest thing we could be growing to replace forest,” enthused George Tyson, general manager of Xymax 2001, a Montrose, Kan., company that has contracted with Strobel’s farmers to convert hemp fiber into building material. “It’s the environmental answer, and it’s the agriculture answer.”
Those on the business end of the budding hemp industry are more circumspect. While acknowledging the attractions of low-THC hemp, they say the economics of growing and processing it on a large scale in North America today remain unproven.
The leading hemp processor in Britain still sells it mainly to stables as horse bedding.
But there is no shortage of interest among Canada’s recession-pummeled farmers. Fiona Briody, director of an Alberta crop development association that has a hemp license request pending, has been astonished by the number of growers in Western Canada seemingly ready to try it.
Among the backers of legalizing hemp here are the Sierra Club of Eastern Canada, other environmental organizations, a handful of enthusiastic grass-roots organizations and a few adventuresome business people.
But Strobel, a lively, 65-year-old retired physical education teacher, has become the hemp movement’s top salesman. He brings to the crusade the kind of bouncy enthusiasm that once led him to develop a fitness program called the Health Hustle, which has been adopted by schools throughout Canada and in parts of the United States.
“Let’s face it, we farmers have an economic problem, and this might be an out, so people are pretty receptive,” he said, sitting in the dining room of the spacious Tillsonburg, Ontario, home that serves as Hemp Headquarters, Canada. “We know it can be grown here because it’s been grown here before, (and) . . . the potential is about unlimited. Somewhere it will pay off.”
Strobel retired from teaching seven years ago and began devoting all his time to the family tobacco farm, about 85 miles southwest of Toronto.
Tobacco remains profitable, he said, but needs to be grown in rotation with other crops. Strobel and his wife, Judith, tried a variety of alternatives, but “nothing really paid off. It pays the taxes and nothing else, so we were looking for something.”
Last year, that something turned out to be hemp.
Since then, Strobel’s quest has taken him around Canada and into the United States.
He has rummaged through abandoned warehouses in Kentucky where hemp was grown legally in the 1940s as a wartime measure, compiled back issues of High Times magazine, collected hemp paper with marijuana leaf watermarks and picked through records and photos of early 20th-Century Canadian hemp cultivation.
Now he speaks with confidence about potential crop yields, prices per acre and transit costs.
Because the bill before Parliament will not pass in time for planting season this year, Strobel’s consortium, using existing law, has asked for an experimental license to grow 18 acres of hemp in scattered locations near Tillsonburg.
They hope to harvest 80 tons and have reached agreement with processors in Canada and the United States for production of a variety of products. Other, similar proposals are pending from elsewhere in Canada, including Alberta.
They await final approval by the Bureau of Dangerous Drugs of Health Canada, which grants a handful of licenses annually, mainly for academic and law enforcement research.
While Strobel acknowledged the debt he owes to the pro-pot crowd, who turned him on to the potential of hemp in the first place, he stressed that the kind of cannabis that he wants to grow should not be confused with what he calls “the happy stuff.”
Although it is of the same species, cannabis grown for hemp has been specially developed in Europe through selective breeding.
The main difference is the low-THC factor of commercial stocks. The pending law in Canada would call for testing seeds and plants to ensure a THC content no higher than 0.3%. THC concentrations in marijuana generally range from about 3% to more than 5%, according to the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Nonetheless, Stuart Carpenter, director of Hemcore Ltd. in Essex, England, Britain’s major processor, said hemp farmers there have occasional problems with night raiders snipping cuttings from low-THC plants and presumably peddling them as marijuana seedlings.
Those who want to legalize the drug say they back the hemp movement out of environmental concerns and the assumption that acceptance of legalized, low-THC hemp eventually will erode the ban on the high-THC variety.
The law that would authorize growth of low-THC hemp would also toughen penalties for marijuana use.
Participation of the pro-pot crowd has caused some political obstacles and awkward moments.
Ken Masse, 44, who farms 1,800 acres of peas, wheat, barley and oats in central Alberta, and is applying for a license to grow an experimental hemp plot, said, “What we really need is a name change, because as soon as you say hemp, people think of marijuana and half the population gets up in arms.”
Hemp originated in Asia and is known to have grown in China as early as 2800 BC. For most of history it mainly has been used as a source for rope, twine and canvas; a 1943 U.S. government film, now gleefully exhibited by marijuana advocates, notes that the rope, sails and rigging of “our beloved Old Ironsides” were made from hemp.
The crop was legally grown in the United States and Canada until the 1930s, when it was banned in both countries as an illicit drug.
Hemp was briefly grown under license in the United States during World War II when the Japanese overran most hemp-growing countries, interrupting the U.S. supply.
Canadian environmentalists were first attracted to hemp as an alternative to lumbering, a considerable lure in a country that still permits clear cutting of old-growth forest. But the Establishment patina of agriculture and business have lent invaluable credibility to a movement that still carries a lingering whiff of counterculture.
Larry Duprey, president of a 23-year-old Montreal-based fashion accessory distribution firm, is importing hemp fabric and making caps, shirts and other clothing.
Carpenter, the British hemp processor, began contracting with English growers mainly for horse bedding, but his company is moving into hemp paper and textiles.
He noted that “it’s an extremely difficult crop to process. We’ve had to develop our own specialty machinery.”
Briody, the Alberta farm official, said that after studying the crop in the Netherlands, Romania and Russia, “the yields definitely aren’t what some people say.”
But Briody said farmers in the association are undeterred.
As Gar Knutson, a Liberal member of Parliament from Ontario who supports legalization and licensing of low-THC hemp, put it: “Agriculture has been so bad anyway, what do we have to lose by trying out hemp for a while?”