Like it or not weed has gone mainstream in Australia. Last weekend's inaugural Hemp Expo held at Sydney's Rosehill racecourse was glaring proof. All things hemp were on display, from beauty products to surfboard wax and even didgeridoos. But this was no 420 event. The event was opened by NSW premier Mike Baird and many of the industry types were from middle Australia.
The event was coupled with the second United in Compassion symposium, which saw health professionals from around the globe stress the importance for patients to be able to access whole plant products as the nation moves towards a legal and regulated medicinal cannabis market.
However, as this burgeoning industry slowly becomes legitimate, the people involved face a multitude of barriers. They are dealing with a substance many still perceive as immoral and, in a lot of cases, remains illicit. So is the legalisation of recreational weed even high on their agenda?
Well, according to veteran hemp grower Andrew Kavasilas, it's not. According to him the Australian recreational cannabis market is already going "gangbusters." It's "twice the size of the wine industry," Kavasilas explains, with Australians smoking over a tonne of pot a day. And he believes recreational consumers are prepared to let activists and the government deal with the more important issues of medicinal cannabis and hemp seed food.
Kavasilas told me this as we stood amongst a couple of hundred of his own hemp plants. Dubbed the "Garden of Tranquillity," this was the most popular exhibit on the day. It's been legal to grow industrial hemp in most parts of Australia for years now, and Andrew is a licensed producer. Even though you can't get high off these plants, the presence of the crop made authorities a little itchy. A NSW Department of Primary Industries official was there to inspect the plants and make sure that not a single leaf left the tent.
Hemp is used for fibre and masonry, but Kavasilas' main interest is hemp seed food. "We're the only country not allowed to eat it and we want to change that," he said beneath the hydroponic lighting. Kavasilas, who is the secretary of the Australian HEMP party, wants to develop varieties "that will grow around the country in different locations and produce really good nutritional hemp seed."
Over at the auditorium, emergency physician Dr David Caldicott took centre stage at the medicinal cannabis symposium. "It's important that the debates regarding medicinal cannabis and recreational cannabis are separate and need to be kept separate," he made clear. Caldicott added his experiences in the field gave him reservations about recreational use. "I treat people who get into strife from taking too much of it," he said.
What's important to the doctor is getting medicine that works to those who are suffering right now. And that's why he and other health professionals and scientists have formed the Australian Medical Cannabis Observatory. They're conducting a survey of Australian patients to find out what products are out there and how effective they are.
The group hopes to use the information gathered to provide a guide so that patients can obtain the best botanical medicines available, and to prevent a situation where Big Pharma has a monopoly on both production and distribution. "The pharmaceutical industry—although they might portray things as such—don't create cures, they create customers and this is not part of what I see as the future of this industry," Caldicott declared.
At present, there are many questions as to how the federally regulated medicinal cannabis market will affect those already involved in the lucrative hemp business.
For the hydroponics industry it's not going to mean much for a while. That's what Tom Forrest, communications manager at Stealth Garden Supplies told VICE. He points to the US model, where hydroponic suppliers weren't really affected by medicinal marijuana.
On the question of what this all means for recreational users, Forrest—a passionate horticulturist—doesn't see much differentiation between the herb's recreational and medicinal use. To him "recreational" simply means "self-medicating." "It's about the community, the plant and the potential," he explained. "Rather than this is a medicine that should be taxed, regulated and controlled."
From the overall feel at the expo it doesn't seem like Australia will be seeing legalised recreational weed anytime soon. Nobody there seemed too concerned about that, although hemp activist Alex Impey believes that recreational use will eventually follow in the footsteps of other legalised cannabis products. However, what Impey is more interested in doing now is introducing current recreational users to the other uses of the plant. "It's not only smokeable," he said. "You can wear it, and eat it."
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