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Cannabis comes in over 2,000 varieties. Depending on their characteristics, these may be used for medical purposes (medical cannabis), as a recreational drug (marijuana), or as a source of fibre and food products (industrial hemp). A key differentiating factor is the presence, or otherwise, of the psychoactive compound THC – marijuana contains up to 15%, medical cannabis may contain THC, and industrial hemp generally has no THC but may have up to 1%.
A wide variety of products may be made from industrial hemp, including textiles, automotive parts, paper, building materials and food products from hemp seed. Commercial industrial hemp production was legalised in NSW in 2008. It is also legal in the ACT, Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia. Despite the presence of suitable growing conditions across Australia and the wide range of products which may be made from industrial hemp, the industry has experienced relatively slow growth.
According to some stakeholders, the prohibition on using hemp seed as a food in Australia and New Zealand is one of the key reasons why the industry has grown slowly. This may change in the next 12 months: ongoing studies are investigating information gaps that need to be filled before the Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation is prepared to make a decision on whether or not to legalise industrial hemp as a food. A decision is expected by 2017.
This paper does not discuss medical cannabis or marijuana in any depth. It describes cannabis and the uses of industrial hemp, before considering the history of cannabis regulation and current Australian industrial hemp regulatory regimes. Developments in the debate on the legalisation of hemp as a food are covered before the paper finishes with a survey of the current state of the industry in NSW, Australia and globally.