Public interest in dagga (marijuana) has reached an all-time high following the Constitutional Court ruling that the government must, within 24 months, change the laws surrounding the growing and personal use of marijuana, to the extent that the industrial crops division of the Agricultural Research Council has started a research programme that will focus on optimizing the cultivation of hemp for medicinal purposes, and this is due to the presence of cannabinoids in the hemp plant.
The ARC says the research is conducted in order to determine key factors to optimize the cultivation of local pharmaceutical grade active ingredients. “The research will develop models, standard operating procedures and development of training manuals towards achieving good agricultural practices (GAP) in the cultivation of hemp for medicinal purposes.”
Cannabis sativa L is an annual crop mainly grown for industrial use and is one of the oldest plants to be grown for food, oil, textile fibre and medicinal purposes.
Hemp and marijuana both belong to the Cannabaceae family which, while not indigenous to southern Africa, all do well here (not for nothing is the plant commonly nicknamed “weed”).
Although similar in appearance, the dagga plant may develop more side branches and has a more bushy appearance than hemp.
Further, dagga varieties, popularly known as marijuana, contain 5-20% of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the ingredient with psychoactive effects (that gives a user a “high”). In contrast hemp has significantly lower concentrations of THC (less than 1%) and higher concentrations of cannabidiol (CBD).
CBD is the ingredient that is prized for medicinal purposes, for pain relief, appetite enhancement and other reasons, and is widely used (albeit often illegally) in the management of chronic pain, to stimulate the appetites of chronically ill patients, as a skin salve, etc.
Hemp also tends to be more fibrous and contains higher levels of oil. Because hemp contains very low THC, it is not suitable for use as a recreational drug.
For hemp, it is the stems and branches that are used, while for medicinal and recreational marijuana it is the flower, and specifically the unfertilized female flower, that is used.
As this implies, the plants are gender specific, and the male plant has no prominent flowers, but produces little pollen sacs which, when ripe, burst to release clouds of pollen which will fertilise any female plants in the vicinity. When this happens the female flowers start to grow seed, which ruins the quality of the flower for harvesting purposes.
Thus, a cannabis grower needs to check his plants at an early stage to remove any males as they are worthless unless he is aiming for seed production.
The flower itself is pretty nondescript looking, but it contains sticky little filaments called trichomes which are covered in a sap, which when young is clear, but which matures to an amber colour with age. The age of the sap affects the kind of “high” the plant will give.
For smoking, when the grower deems the time is right the entire flower and its stem is harvested, “leaves” growing out of the flower are trimmed off and the flower is hung is a cool dry place to dry for a few days. It is ready when the stem breaks cleanly and drily rather than bends. The flower can then be stored in an airtight glass jar for later use.
For medicinal purposes the flower is crushed up and steeped in a solvent to dissolve the sap on the trichomes. There are various ways of making cannabis oil, (a dark brown or black substance depending on how it is made), which is the most common form of medicinal marijuana, although the oil can also be used to make cookies, edible butter, and skin salves etc.
One of the factors which prevent homemade cannabis oil from being legalised is that the strength of the oil can vary from batch to batch, with the result that the user needs to experiment from batch to batch to find the dose that suits best.
Cannabis plants can be grown either indoors or outdoors. Indoors, under grow-lights their size can be controlled to keep them manageable. Grown in the open they will reach a height of 2m if left uncontrolled.
There are any number of varieties of marijuana for recreational and medicinal use, containing different proportions of THC and CBD, and botanists have also developed strains that are guaranteed to grow as females, thereby avoiding the inefficiency of growing useless male plants in one’s crop.
Plants grown for hemp are left to get as big as possible.
There is a wide range of uses for hemp. Industrial hemp is used to make over 25 000 consumer products from hemp apparel and accessories to house-wares and hemp seed oil cosmetics.
Some of the products made from hemp are: clothing, shoes, diapers, rope, canvas, cellophane, paints, fuels, chain lubricants, biodegradable plastics, paper, fibreboard, cement blocks, food, cosmetics, and soap.
Since around the turn of the 20th Century it has been illegal to handle or cultivate cannabis or hemp in South Africa. Typically there has been a requirement for a permit, obtainable from the Dept of Health under the Medicines Control Council for cultivation, transport and use of hemp. However, the recent Constitutional Court ruling could significantly alter the regulatory requirements for handling hemp.
In order to conduct research and development, the ARC was issued with permits by the Dept of Health as early as 1994 to allow for legal handling, possession, cultivating and harvesting of hemp. Research work on hemp has been going on for more than 20 years and this resulted in the successful development of two hemp fibre varieties suited to the South African growing conditions. These two varieties are in the process of being registered with the Dept of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries.
Hemp production research on agronomics, harvesting and processing has also been done. A production guide was developed and is available from the ARC. From the research conducted, the results show that hemp fibre production can be cultivated successfully in KwaZulu Natal, the Eastern Cape and Western Cape. The main reason for this confined production is due to long photoperiod (±14 hours daily) requirements of hemp.
In South Africa, not enough hemp is produced for the local market due to legislative barriers. There is an existing market in South for imported hemp products, mainly hemp textiles and fibre. Several hemp products, such as clothing, soaps and shampoo are manufactured in SA from imported raw materials.
A large government-sponsored BEE hemp farm named House of Hemp was established some years ago in the industrial development zone near King Shaka Airport in KZN.
The Constitutional Court ruling opens up a wide variety of possibilities for the ARC to develop new products and uses for hemp; which in turn, would be a good stimulus for enterprise development and job creation.