Turkey in the midst of a major hemp revolution

Published 06.02.2019 00:06

After decades of demonization, Turkey has rediscovered the importance of hemp as a crop for the economy and the environment. Recently, significant signals on the topic have been sent by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in his speeches in Ankara, Rize and Samsun.

At its core, the president referred to the U.S. ban in the early 20th century on the cultivation of cannabis – which also affected Turkey. As a succinct example, he highlighted Rize, the hometown of his grandparents near the Black Sea, where today the main crop is tea. The province was known mainly for hemp cultivation in the past. The district Kendirli is even named after the plant, with "kendir" the Turkish term for hemp.

Hemp originates from Central Asia, where the plant has been used for 8,000 years. The region is also the original homeland of the Turkic people. The medical and practical use of this plant has been mentioned in Chinese literature since around 2,000 B.C. It was later praised by Avicenna, who used hemp as a cure for a variety of diseases. Turkic people also understood the value of this plant. This tradition was later continued by Seljuk Turks and the Ottomans. Swiss Islamic scholar Rudolf Gelpke provided, in the 1960s, important insight into the significance of hemp in Islamic countries. Impressively, he detailed its influence on art and poetry. Up until the 20th century, hemp was also consumed in coffee houses or in small groups. Many Sufi communities honor hemp because of its miraculous properties.

The Turkish hemp initiative has received widespread support from the Eurasian Strategy Institute (ASAM) and from the minister of agriculture and forestry, Bekir Pakdemirli. Initially, cultivation is being allowed in 19 provinces under state licenses. The demand of farmers is already very high – especially in cities such as Samsun, Kastamonu or Tokat, where in the past large quantities were grown. In 1520, over 90 tons of hemp were harvested in the province of Kastamonu and in 1574 in Tokat over 20 tons.

Cultivation data

Currently, hemp cultivation in Turkey is almost nonexistent. According to data from the Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat), only 87.50 hectares were cultivated in 2000, resulting in 140 tons of seeds and 2,500 tons of fibers. In 2016, the total acreage of hemp was only 0.25 hectares, with a yield of 1 ton of seeds and 7 tons of fibers.

In contrast to today's situation, hemp cultivation was of outstanding economic and ecological significance for previous generations because the harvested plants can be used to produce countless everyday objects such as clothing, paper, medicine or food – with ecological sustainability. Hemp is a long-lasting, versatile, recyclable and therefore valuable natural product. In contrast to the production of synthetic plastics, hemp cultivation does not produce polluting biproducts; in fact, quite the opposite. The plants can get by with little water, do not need pesticides and produce large amounts of oxygen – about four times more than trees. Hemp paper can be put through recycling eight times; whereas cellulose paper made of wood can only be recycled about three times. Hemp matures in three to four months, but trees take 20-50 years. Hemp also cleans the environment of radiation. The oil, derived from hemp seeds, is not only a valuable source of omega-3 but can also replace classic crude oil today used to produce plastics and fuel. The product range extends to material for buildings or vehicle bodies and includes around 50,000 variations.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are the main active ingredients of the female hemp plant. They are used in medications for over 250 diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, depression, epilepsy, diabetes and glaucoma. Because humans have an endogenous cannabinoid system, the body perfectly metabolizes the substances, without the dangerous side effects often seen with other pharmaceuticals.

But why was such a valuable plant shunned in the culture, denied cultivated land in the country and banned worldwide? Here, economic interests during industrialization play an important role. Early 20th century campaigns to combat and ban hemp were initiated by various interest groups who saw the crop as competing with their own, mostly synthetic, products. The chemical company DuPont, whose synthetic fibers increasingly replaced hemp in the global market, played an important role in this trend.

At the same time, U.S. diplomat Harry J. Anslinger tried to call for a worldwide ban on cannabis as part of the U.N. drugs commission. In 1961, hemp was stigmatized as a dangerous drug in "The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs" – an unfair label that has since been debunked.

The initiatives were also supported in Hollywood, where several propaganda-based films were produced, the most famous being "Reefer Madness" (1936), where anti-cannabis incitement was mixed with racist resentment against blacks and Latinos. Cannabis, at that time, was portrayed as the drug of socially marginalized populations in the U.S. It has been falsely claimed that hemp makes people aggressive, violent, unrestrained and crazy. We now know, hemp, unlike the U.S. propaganda in the early 20th century, has a calming, soothing and thought-provoking effect – unlike alcohol or synthetic drugs such as amphetamines.

The expected process

As many experts have highlighted, a speedy decriminalization with simultaneous promotion of hemp cultivation is needed. Everyone must have the permission to grow the plant for their own use in the garden. Likewise, a new categorization of drugs as "soft" and "hard" must be enforced, as has been the case in Western countries for years.

Besides, synthetic designer drugs, such as Spice or Flaka, pose major health threats to society. Also, drugs such as alcohol or nicotine are scientifically dangerous, yet freely available. This contradicts logic. Likewise, other substances, such as solvents, are misused as drugs. To ban this substance does not solve any problems. A fundamental reform of the drug policy is necessary.

Unlike many other drugs, there is no lethal dose of cannabis and no physical dependence; however, what can emerge for some is a persistent habit if it is negligently consumed.

Cannabis is even being used to treat addictions to hard drugs. In light of these benefits, the drug policy in Turkey needs to be fundamentally reformed and adapted to current research. This must go hand in hand with state education.

In most European countries, drug education is taught in middle school. Students are educated very early and objectively informed about drug variations, their effects and the potential risks. This allows adolescents to better assess risks and act with caution.

The global trend

The global trend today shows an increasing decriminalization and social acceptance of the use of hemp. This movement, at the same time, undermines the uncontrolled black market for the substance, which will also benefit consumers. Likewise, this could mean enormous financial benefits for the state. Take the U.S. as an example. In many U.S. states, cannabis has been fully legalized; the same has happened in its neighbor Canada. The state revenue is immense. In the United States, more than 400,000 new jobs are expected in the cannabis industry in the long-term. The consulting firm ArcView forecasts profits of nearly $40 billion by 2021.

A determined promotion of the industrial use of hemp could even cover the raw material requirements of Turkish industry. As a result, imports would drop. Hemp, therefore, has the potential to offset the trade balance deficit quickly and create new jobs. A return to hemp would protect the ecological balance of Turkey and significantly reduce environmental pollution.

In the next few years, the results of the announced hemp revolution will be even clearer. The requests for cultivation permits are piling up already in the 19 approved provinces, where hemp cultivation is now subsidized by the Turkish state.

* Editor at Daily Sabah German

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