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Slow licensing process shuts out hemp growers

The Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance wants hemp production and processing rules streamlined so it can compete

Would-be hemp growers are being forced to take a pass on the speciality crop this spring because of bureaucratic shortfalls.

The seeding deadline for full crop insurance coverage for industrial hemp was June 10, but some farmers still had not received a licence from Health Canada to grow the crop, while others gave up earlier and switched to another crop, says Kim Shukla, executive director of the Canadian Industrial Hemp Association.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” a frustrated Shukla said in an interview last week.

“There have been so many changes at Health Canada they just don’t have the people working on our files any longer. It is creating a whole bunch of issues within Health Canada being able to process the documentation. They say they have a

30-working-day turnaround. We rarely see that.”

Last week Shukla was pushing Health Canada to issue a licence to one Manitoba seed grower who had applied for a licence in March.

“If we don’t get seed in the ground we might not have certified seed down the road,” Shukla said.

“We may not feel the repercussions of that for several years. Every time they delay a licence people are giving up, not bothering with the crop, and going to something else.

“Unfortunately they do not let us know who is waiting. The only time we hear back is when someone is saying, ‘Look, I just can’t do this anymore. We have been waiting for months.’”

Licensing delays aren’t the only problems with Health Canada. The federal department has so many regulations, from requiring growers to get annual criminal checks, to having to plant the exact acreage stated in the application form, it’s a challenge to produce industrial hemp in Canada, she said.

One farmer reported he was going to grow three acres of industrial hemp, but based on the GPS co-ordinates the farmer submitted, Health Canada determined the field would be 3.5 acres.

“They said, ‘Sorry, that doesn’t cut it. It has to be three acres,” Shukla said.

Heath Canada was asked to respond on Shukla’s complaints June 10, but no one was immediately available to comment.

Hemp is a member of the cannabis family, which includes marijuana. Even though the two plants look much the same, Canadian hemp is allowed to contain 0.3 per cent or less tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive responsible for the “high” in marijuana.

Hemp also contains many of the non-psychoactive cannabinoids believed to have valuable medicinal benefits, including cannabidiol or CBD as it’s also known.

But unlike in the United States, Canadian hemp growers can only harvest the plant’s seed and bare stalk, even though the leaves, bracts and flowers contain many beneficial cannabinoids and almost no THC.

Canadian hemp growers fear U.S. producers are getting a jump on them, Shukla said.

“In Canada… there is a whole market segment that we are totally missing,” she said. “And it is another piece of value the farmer could be capturing from this crop.

“Ironically, today Canadians who need the beneficial cannabinoids to treat medical conditions only have recourse to marijuana, while these components of our hemp crops are being left to waste in Canadian fields,” Shukla said in a news release.

There is research showing CBD helps reduce seizures in children with epilepsy, Shukla said. CBD is available in hemp and marijuana, but parents prefer CBD without the psychoactive THC.

“Increasing research is showing that CBD not only serves as an effective treatment option for several serious brain disorders, including epilepsy and schizophrenia, we now know that CBD actually counteracts many of the negative effects associated with THC,” the University of Western Ontario’s Dr. Steven Laviolette said in the release.

The cost to patients of high-CBD cannabis is equivalent to high-THC marijuana as it is being grown in the same high-security facilities, the release said. Allowing hemp farmers to harvest CBD from their crops would radically reduce the cost to patients.

The CHTA is calling on the federal government to modernize industrial hemp regulations, while continuing to oversee its production, Shukla said.

Four weeks ago the CHTA wrote the governments of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario asking them to support regulatory changes. The only premier to respond as of June 9 was Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall, who promised a meeting.

“We haven’t heard anything from Manitoba,” Shukla said. “Not a thing… not even the cursory ‘we received your letter and we will respond.’”

Some of the red tape exists because in 1998 when Canadian farmers were allowed to grow hemp again after a decades-long prohibition, there was uncertainty about its impact on the environment and presumably the illegal marijuana trade.

“For 16 years now we have been doing it extremely successfully,” Shulka said. “There have been no incidents affecting public safety. As an industry we put in all sorts of self-regulation, but that hasn’t changed Health Canada’s approach so it hasn’t simplified and streamlined the regulations. And the bureaucrats are not going to do the work unless there is political pressure to do so.”

Hemp seed is used in food products and cosmetics, while the fibre, which is famously strong, is made into rope, clothes and can be made into automobile parts, insulation and can replace plastics.

Industrial hemp was grown on about 84,000 acres in Canada last year, a CHTA document says. Acreage has increased 20 per cent a year the last five years.

During the same period Canadian hemp exports increased by 50 per cent annually to $110 million. They could be worth $142 million by 2020, the CHTA document says.

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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