Pubdate: 3 Jul 1998 Source: Mail and Guardian (South Africa) Author: Ferial Haffajee Contact: Website:


Such conservative South African companies as Mercedes Benz and PG Bison are funding research into using a form of "dagga" to produce timber substitutes and natural fibres. But health officials remain hostile ...

AJOR South African companies, in conjunction with the government, are funding research into hemp production at the country's first experimental cannabis farms. Among them are Mercedes Benz South Africa, PG Bison and Masonite Africa.

The farms, around the country, are controlled by the Agricultural Research Council and supported by the Department of Trade and Industry, which believe that hemp can become a major export product.

But red tape and groen gevaar [green danger] by old-style bureaucrats in the Department of Health could frustrate the agricultural production of hemp and cost the country the competitive advantage.

PG Bison and Masonite Africa have provided research funds to grow a crop of local hemp that could be used as a timber substitute. European investors are poised to fund research into a South African strain because they do not have the land for large-scale production themselves, and Mercedes Benz has earmarked R100-million for a natural-fibre project.

But these investors first need the government to follow international practice and legalise hemp production by distinguishing between hemp and dagga. The two are distant cousins, with cannabis as their common ancestor.

The health department must learn to tell the rope from the dope, says James Wynn, the director of the Southern African Hemp Company and an international expert on the crop.

Like most countries, South Africa outlawed the entire cannabis plant because of its narcotic effects. But over the years scientists have learned to calculate the drug levels in different cannabis plants and grow strains that will not make you high even if you smoke a truck-load.

Those strains are used instead for their seed and their fibres, in applications which range from oil, fuel and beauty products to clothing, wood substitute in board and car components. Any request to grow and process the low-drug strains of hemp must be granted by the Medicines Control Council (MCC). This has mired production in red tape which means researchers must be licensed by both the departments of both health and agriculture.

Every researcher and each experimental farm involved must also apply for a permit from the MCC. But the council meets only once every six weeks, and often hemp-permit applications get pushed aside for issues high on the agenda, like Virodene.

"You can miss a whole season because it can take months before a permit clears," says Wynn. "At the moment it's like getting a hand-gun permit to build a shovel."

To play catch-up, South Africa will need to legalise hemp. That will mean changes to four pieces of legislation. It will also mean that the regulatory authority should be transferred to the agriculture department, which is better placed to exploit its economic potential.

"We're losing competitive advantage. There's a broad pattern of interest and South Africa has a potentially fantastic gene bank," says David Cooper, an adviser in the agricultural ministry.

Local scientists at the Agricultural Research Council are blending dagga and hemp to find a strain that will yield more rope and less dope. A successful local breed could see South Africa one day grow as much hemp as it does mielies.

The Department of Trade and Industry's spatial development initiatives along the Wild Coast and in the Eastern Cape and Phalaborwa have already identified areas where hemp and other natural fibres can be grown for export.

The health department has started a task team to begin considering the changes. But it must work fast: about 30 other countries are gearing up for large-scale hemp production. Warns Wynn: "Once markets are flooded, the price will come down."