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To Remove The Stigma Around Hemp ‘You Need A Better Understanding And Knowledge Of What You’re Stigmatising, That’s Exactly What’s Happening Now’

FOLLOWING the publication of a special report on industrial hemp, The ​​United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) is set to host a workshop tomorrow (Wednesday January 18, 2023). 

The session, which is open to anyone to attend virtually, will see UNCTAD’s Economic Affairs Officer Marco Fugazza address global political leaders, academics and private stakeholders to detail the currently untapped potential of industrial hemp, and how countries can move to ‘fully exploit’ them. 

We caught up with Mr Fugazza, who will be speaking at Cannabis Europa London 2023 on May 2-3, to discuss these opportunities and why they’re so important to capitalise on.

Could you start by telling us a bit about yourself and the work you do within UNCTAD?

UNCTAD is not necessarily a well-known agency. Actually, it’s part of the UN Secretariat, and it stands for UN Conference on Trade and Development. So, what we’re doing here is essentially dealing with trade and development-related issues. 

Personally, I’m a research economist, specialising mostly in international trade, but also, to some extent, labour markets, and what I’ve been doing so far is looking at different trade issues and trade policy issues in terms of market access conditions. 

More recently I joined the commodities branch and we have a series there called Commodities at a Glance’. The objective of this series is to bring not only to policymakers but also to any other type of reader’s attention some specific commodities, and that’s why I came across hemp. We’ve been realising that there is perhaps a misconception about the plant. 

There have been a number of significant developments in the hemp industry recently. In December 2021, the EU voted to restore the THC levels on field to 0.3%. Later, the US enacted federal legalisation of hemp as a traditional crop, and many Latin American countries are either regulating the production or outright legalising hemp to be grown at a large scale. Are these signs that the world is waking up to the potential of hemp?

Clearly, these are encouraging steps towards the rehabilitation of the plant – because the plant has been around almost forever; it was almost born with humankind. Hemp is, by definition, a weed, so there’s no human transformation at its origins. 

The recent regulatory evolution shows that we are rediscovering all the potential and trying to do our best to unlock this potential. 

There is a long road to rediscover the knowledge that has been around for thousands of years, which has been lost to some extent due to the bad stigma that we imposed on the plant less than a century ago. 

These encouraging developments perhaps came not necessarily with the intention to unlock the potential of the whole plant. 

The partial legalisation of any type of cannabis plant in some US states and also afterwards in Canada since 2018 came because of the high value that could be captured thanks to the exploitation of the flowers. 

But it’s only a small part of the plant. All the parts of the plant can be used to make hemp products, which are not necessarily the ones that we have in mind when we think of cannabis.

Recently, we have seen countries such as France approve the sale of hemp flower following a protracted legal dispute, while other countries, including Germany, Ireland and Spain, continue to prosecute those selling hemp and CBD. Why do you think this stigma still exists?

It’s like any type of prejudice. It takes time to remove it, and to remove it you need a better understanding and knowledge of what you’re stigmatising, and that’s exactly what is happening right now. 

France is moving now towards legalisation of the trade and commerce of flowers. Germany will move a step further by 2024 there might be full legalisation also for the recreational user, with some control and precise regulations around the users and the type of products. 

That is showing that there is an evolution and an increasing understanding of all the properties of the plant. 

There was a history of production in France, not necessarily of the flowers but with the rest of the plant, and with this regulatory move towards more tolerance, we will certainly be able to unlock the potential that the plants represent again. 

In terms of how to provoke some change in behaviour and perceptions, that’s one of the objectives of the reports that we produce. And, hopefully, that will also be a small effect of the event next week. 

Your recently published UNCTAD report on industrial hemp covers a number of really important issues in great detail, but I wondered if you could boil down the key findings and recommendations for us?

The first key point is the information and data gap that we came across. When we started looking for information about hemp, we saw that there is a lot of work to do here, especially if you look at the trade statistics. 

The classification, for instance, does not consider oil, which is an important product in the sector and highly traded, but it’s almost impossible to trace if you look at international trade statistics. 

Information is quite scattered and not necessarily consistent across countries, because there is only one international classification used by all countries, but then countries are free to add any information whenever they record the trade flows. 

One of the most important reasons for filling these data gaps is to build an economic case. If you have to invest in a sector, you want to know precisely what the potentials are in terms of market opportunity around the world. 

This information could also contribute to making the stigma disappear, in the sense that if we realise that cannabis trade is not only about the illegal side, but could also be about trading fibre, oils, seeds or whatever that have nothing to do with the intoxicating issues of the plant. 

So, that’s one big conclusion, that we know something about hemp, but we do not have a clear idea of the full picture, even in terms of our base data areas. 

The other one is the necessity to have a clear reflection about the regulatory approach to the plant, to make sure that its potential can be fully exploited by countries and, in particular, developing countries. 

As I mentioned before, hemp is a seed that can grow in almost any condition. We are able to grow hemp even at very high altitudes. In Nepal, for instance, you have a handful of varieties that can grow at an altitude of more than 3,000 metres, so it’s quite significant. 

If countries are willing to exploit the potential of the plant, they would first need to think in terms of regulations and how to regulate the sector. The type of regulations that are imposed will affect the type of industrial strategy that can be put in place, and also how growers and processors will be able to react to these regulations to adapt. 

What role do hemp’s carbon sequestration properties play in driving the expansion of its use throughout the world? 

For the time being, I think we’re still investigating all the potentiality from the point of view of how much carbon can actually be sequestered by hemp plants. 

We usually consider forests to be the best carbon sinks, and there are some estimates existing suggesting hemp would lie in the middle of the range you would obtain from different types of forests, ages and climate configurations. 

So, hemp should be a good candidate because the growing period is only four to six months, depending on climatic conditions. 

It’s still under consideration. I have heard of some initiatives that could be taken here and there to use and to produce some carbon credits that could then be sold on to some carbon markets. 

On the thread of driving the expansion of hemp throughout the world, can you tell us a bit about the upcoming UNCTAD workshop on industrial hemp, happening next week? What do you hope to achieve through this event?

So, the event will take place on Wednesday, 18 January. We organised that as a follow-up of the publication of the Special Issue on Industrial Hemp we published at the end of last November. 

Again, the idea is really to broaden the view that people may have about hemp, especially policymakers. 

We want to provide any information that could be useful to them if their government is intending to use hemp in one of their sustainable development strategies, for example.

So, it’s essentially pedagogical, and we want to make sure that the stigma that still exists could disappear relatively rapidly, at least amongst our member states. 

We are expecting representatives of various countries and member states of the UN to join us, either in person or virtually. It will be a hybrid event, so it is possible to attend and participate in the event wherever you are.

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