By DAVID HILL
Relaxing the rules around the growing of cannabis plants could create 20,000 jobs nationally within five years, industry backers say.
Canterbury is at the heart of the country’s fledgling cannabis industry through the growing of the less potent variety, hemp. However, it is hampered by the current law which still classifies this industrial variety of the cannabis plant as a harmful drug.
However, hemp contains only a fraction of the psychoactive substances found in marijuana.
Brad Lake, a co-founder of South Island hemp producer The Brothers Green, says a vote to legalise cannabis in this September’s referendum will likely see an easing of restrictions around the growing of cannabis and its hemp cousin, as new legislation will be required to change the cannabis laws.
Such a move could create 20,000 jobs within five years, with Canterbury farmers leading the way, Mr Lake says.
With tens of thousands of people expected to be unemployed by the end of the year because of Covid-19, now is the time for change, he says.
“The opportunities are just phenomenal, particularly for young people who can really
grasp the potential.
“It’s young people we are putting at risk if we don’t get in behind them and get some
reform around cannabis.”
Under the existing legal framework, Mr Lake says a full-spectrum hemp oil, CBD (cannabidiol) is imported from Canada as a prescription medicine for treating arthritis, skin conditions and anxiety, with patients paying a premium.
“It’s so simple to make and it’s just a plant oil. We could be producing this in Canterbury, but we’re not allowed to use that part of the plant.”
The state of Colorado, in the United States, which has a similar population to New Zealand and legalised cannabis six years ago, now has a cannabis industry employing 35,000 people.
Last year, the state government collected $320 million in taxes, Mr Lake said.
“But in New Zealand, we don’t collect any tax from cannabis and we have the expense of resourcing the police to enforce the law.
“By turning it into a health issue rather than a crime, you can control the quality, the use and who is at risk.”
Last year, 100 hectares of farmland near Culverden was converted to hemp, while Mid-Canterbury companies Carrfields and Midlands are both growing more than 500ha, all supplying The Brothers Green.
Being a deep-rooted plant, hemp can access minerals in the soil which other plants cannot reach, making it a highly regenerative crop. It creates a diversity of products for farmers and an additional income source, Mr Lake says.
Canterbury is the best place to grow hemp as “we are just so blessed with water and irrigation”, and there is support for the fledgling industry at Canterbury and Lincoln universities, he says.
“We are working with the universities to get some hard data and credible
numbers for farmers to make those decisions.”
Mr Lake says he cannot think of another plant “that could create so many opportunities” as hemp: anything from food, fibre, oil, medication and even a natural alternative to plastic. There is a growing export market, he says.
Growing hemp could also help Canterbury farms become carbon neutral, he says.
Research indicates dairy farmers who convert 10 percent of their farm into hemp could reduce carbon emissions by at least 50%.