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HIGH ON INDUSTRIAL HEMP

To the great disappointment of crop-raiding pot heads, you can't get high from Vaclav Tusek's fragrant fields of green.

Tusek, 28, better known as "Diamond," is one of the Czech Republic's only growers of industrial cannabis, or hemp. His business represents a global revival of the marijuana look-alike, best known for its textile applications.

"I decided to grow cannabis when I wanted to buy hemp jeans," said the entrepreneur, who wears the fruit of his harvest. "I couldn't find them anywhere, so I told myself, 'If hemp isn't here, fine, I'll grow it myself.'"

This fall, for the first time since founding the company in 1998 with partner Martin Hajek, Tusek harvested and exported most of his 40 hectares (100 acres) in west Bohemia.

The harvest was unaffected by pot smokers who occasionally steal some of the crop, mistakenly thinking they can get a buzz from a hemp joint.

In the future, Tusek hopes to sell all the hemp domestically to meet what's expected to be an expanding market.

"We can assume that the demand for hemp will increase in [coming] years to some extent because Czech industry is following a European trend by using more and more recyclable, raw material," said Hugo Roldan, Ministry of Agriculture spokesman.

The first recorded harvesting of hemp was in 6500 B.C. in Central Asia. The plant can be used as a paper substitute and as a heating fuel. Banned in the 1930s in most Western countries for its link to marijuana, hemp has made a comeback in Canada and Britain in the last decade. Now it's catching on in the European Union.

Car manufacturers, including BMW, use hemp in car doors and dashboards, boosting worldwide demand for the plant.

Its strong fibers and seeds have 2,500 known uses which range from particleboard to rope and cosmetics.

Next year, the Ministry of Agriculture will follow the EU's example and begin using hemp as a renewable energy source.

Currently, the Czech Republic imports rough hemp and hemp tow (Cannabis sativa) for textile, rope and canvas production. It comes from Austria, Switzerland, Germany, France, Poland and China. Last year more than 1 million Kc ($26,000) worth of hemp was imported, but imports soared to 1.9 million Kc in the first nine months of 2000.

Hemp has long been grown in Moravia and Bohemia for textile purposes. During communist times, about 2,000 hectares were cultivated in Slovakia.

Last year, the Czech government legalized the planting of cannabis with levels of the mood-altering component THC (tetrahydrocannabinols) below 0.3 percent. Illegal marijuana contains about 20 percent THC.

As a result, many farmers have started growing small plots of cannabis for heating fuel, Roldan said. "They save money and reduce the production costs of farming."

But the future of industrial hemp growing, to meet new domestic demand or replace imports, is not altogether bright. EU countries heavily subsidize hemp crops, but the Czech Republic does not.

"For Czech hemp growers it's very difficult to compete in the market with EU subsidized prices," Roldan said.

Tusek is not as worried about his future in the domestic market. Even without a store, Internet site or formal advertising, his company sold its entire stock of 100 pieces of hemp clothing this year, including jeans for 1,500 Kc a pair, a suit, wedding dress and fashion-show attire.

Tusek is more concerned about being strangled by the EU's tight regulations, which require cannabis to reach 50 percent maturity before harvest.

The harvesting rule is "senseless because the fiber gets too old and loses the qualities we need," he said.

Nevertheless, he's optimistic about Czech hemp's future. "I think if we continue building like we are, getting stronger and stronger, EU entry won't be a problem for us."

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Written by: Felice Wilson, The Prague Post


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