HEALTH MINISTERS APPROVE THE LEGALISATION OF HEMP FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION
Hemp smoothies and hemp-laced muffins could appear on shop shelves and cafe menus by the year's end following a decision to legalise the cannabis plant's seeds for human consumption.
After rejecting proposals to amend the Food Standards Code as far back as 2002, state and federal health ministers have now decided hemp - the same species as marijuana - is safe to eat.
"The standard will take effect six months after it has been gazetted and ministers acknowledged that there is still a range of New Zealand and State and Territory legislation that currently prohibits the sale of low-THC hemp seeds as a food which will need to be amended," reads a communique from health ministers at the Forum of Food Regulation on Friday.
Industrial hemp, unlike marijuana, has extremely low levels of the mind-altering chemical tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). But ministers had feared it would affect roadside drug testing and make them appear soft on drugs.
Health food shops are skirting the rules by selling hemp oil as "moisturiser" and seeds as a "body scrub" ingredient on a "don't ask, don't tell" basis.
Paul Benhaim, chief executive of Hemp Foods Australia, which only sells "external use only" products in Australia but exports food products, said the news was fantastic. MrBenhaim has been lobbying governments for 17 years.
He expects his business, which dominates 80 per cent of the domestic market, to quadruple in the next year. He has been selling hemp oil as a moisturiser, but will now be able to sell it as food.
"We're talking with supermarkets, juice shops, delicatessens about using hemp seeds in all sorts of products, from breads to drinks," he said.
The sale of food containing hemp has, until now, been banned. Photo: Supplied
"In five years' time, hemp could be as common as soy, chia and flaxseed because it's nutritious."
Food Standards Australia and New Zealand gave its approval to lift the ban in March after concluding that hemp was safe for human consumption when they contained no more than the maximum levels of THC.
It found hemp seeds were a good source of vitamins, minerals and polyunsaturated fatty acids, particularly omega-3 fatty acids.
FSANZ first proposed amendments in 2002, but ministers were concerned about the effect on roadside drug testing and sending mixed messages to the public.
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said the government supported the legalisation of hemp for human consumption. Photo: Dean Osland
Their about-turn was triggered by a new Swinburne University study that found it was highly unlikely the consumption of low-THC hemp foods would result in positive THC readings on oral fluid, urine or blood tests.
It's understood that labels on hemp foods must not allude to psychoactive effects or use the words "cannabis" and "marijuana". Products could hit shelves as soon as November.
Industrial hemp has THC levels of about 0.03 per cent, compared to marijuana, which can contain up to 30 per cent.
"You can smoke a whole field of industrial hemp and not get high, maybe a headache," Mr Benhaim said.
Dr Trent Watson, a Dieticians Association of Australia spokesman, said just 30 grams of hemp seed, or about one tablespoon, provided about 11 grams of protein. To compare, an egg has about six grams of protein.
"Hemp seed is also an easy way of getting more omega-3 fat into the diet – this fat helps reduce 'bad' LDL cholesterol and may help protect against heart disease," he said.
Hemp seeds - labelled a "super food" - can be sold and consumed in many countries, including Canada, Germany and Japan.
Charles Kovess, a member of Australian Industrial Hemp Alliance, said the news was a boon for Australia's fledgling hemp industry, from machine manufacturers to farmers.
The international market for hemp foods is estimated at $1 billion annually.
"It's a wonderful decision," said Mr Kovess. "It's disgraceful that it's taken our politicians so long."
Victorian hemp farmer Harry Youngman said exciting times were ahead for the industry because demand was growing for hemp as a source of paper, clothing and fuel, as well as food.
People are using hemp seeds from Hemp Foods Australia for baking, smoothies and a nice healthy additional to add to cereal or salad.