The rise and (risk?) of Chinese hemp
China has quietly filed for more than half of the 600 patents connected to Chinese hemp.
China is the number one supplier of industrial hemp to the United States, meaning that “50 state-legal CBD” product you’re taking was possibly produced with Chinese hemp oil. What does China’s market dominance in hemp mean for the growing U.S. hemp industry and consumer safety?
China has a cultural connection with cannabis that reaches back more than 3,000 years, so it’s less than shocking that the country is positioning itself to reap economic rewards from the rising global tide of decriminalization.
But the South China Morning Post reports that one of the biggest advantages China has in the budding international cannabis market has much more recent historical roots — research done into hemp medicine and textiles during the 1970s to support China’s war with Vietnam.
From the Post:
The military needed to develop a fabric that could keep soldiers clean and dry in Vietnam’s humidity, and cannabis hemp offered the fiber that breathed and was antibacterial. Other studies explored the plant’s use as a drug in field hospitals.
As a result of that research, more than half of the world’s 600-plus patents related to the plant are now held in China, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization. This has prompted concerns in the Western pharmaceutical industry that the Chinese government or Chinese firms might take advantage of the patent barriers.
Although China outlawed the possession of cannabis in 1985 when it joined the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, law enforcement there has largely ignored the continued cultivation of hemp by farmers. The country also has certain regions — notably the Heilongjiang province near the border with Russia — where farmers are legally licensed to produce industrial hemp.
In those regions, farmers can profit from the sale of every part of the hemp plant; stems go to textile factories to produce fabric, leaves go to pharmaceutical companies to make medicine and the seeds are sold to food manufacturers for use in making oils, beverages and snack foods.
And the crop is profitable for farmers, who say the result is “pure profit” — more than 10,000 yuan for every hectare of hemp — compared to crops like corn, which provide much lower profit margins.
It’s also worth noting that the Heilongjiang province — like many of China’s hemp producing regions — is not home to an especially hospitable climate. Here again, the country’s extensive research into the plant provides an advantage.
From the Post:
Over the decades, researchers developed various hybrid species that not just survived but thrived in China’s disparate environments, from the Arctic conditions in Heilongjiang, to Inner Mongolia’s Gobi Desert to the subtropics of Yunnan.
But what does all this mean for cannabis in America — the biggest importer of Chinese hemp?
Dr. Luc C. Duchesne is a biochemistry expert with 30 years of science and business experience. He believes that China’s extensive portfolio of cannabis patents, but also the nature of those patents — herbal, whole-plant preparations vs. “reductionist” synthesizing of key cannabinoids — could hold the keys to Chinese dominance in a global medical cannabis market.
“The predominance of Chinese patents suggests that pharmaceutical sciences are evolving quickly in China, outpacing western capabilities. Uneven country ownership of intellectual property suggests possible global imbalance,” Duchensne wrote. “In the Chinese patents cannabis is used in herbal preparations, whereas in the western patents emphasis is on the properties of one or more of the 415 cannabinoid[s].”
Duchense also points to the history of acupuncture in California, which went from outlawed to ubiquitous practically overnight, as an illustration of how rapidly patient paradigms about their healing can change. He sees the social movement towards more holistic approaches to medicine in the United States overlapping with the growing acceptance of cannabis medicine in mainstream culture; his conclusion?
“The writing is on the wall: westernized Chinese traditional medicine is coming to a dispensary near you.”
Maybe so: At the start of the year, the first online CBD product store and distributor opened with its headquarters in Shanghai.
The U.S. has a booming hemp product industry, but many of those products are produced with imported hemp from Canada or China because of legal restrictions on domestic cultivation. American hemp farms finally got back in the game in 2014, but they have a long way to go in establishing themselves as a major supplier domestically, never mind a global market force like China or Canada.
Putting aside the economic considerations, thousands of Americans are already consuming Chinese hemp oil — whether they realize it or not. What potential health risk is there for cannabis consumers using “50 state-legal” CBD products?
As with most things, it depends who you ask: Unsurprisingly, companies that produce CBD products from hemp oil say it’s totally the same as cannabis-derived oil; others say not only is that untrue, hemp oil could have safety issues and isn’t even federally legal.
Project CBD, a California-based nonprofit that promotes CBD research and medicine, has expressed concerns about the use of hemp oil for CBD extraction, pointing to issues with bioaccumulation by industrial hemp.
From Project CBD:
Industrial hemp typically contains far less cannabidiol than CBD-rich cannabis strains so a huge amount of industrial hemp is required to extract a small amount of CBD. This raises the risk of contaminants as hemp is a “bio-accumulator”—meaning the plant naturally draws toxins from the soil.
Additionally, the project raised concerns about the efficacy of CBD-only products, pointing to research around the “entourage effect” of cannabis in treating illness.
It’s unclear if CBD products made with Chinese hemp oil are any riskier than American-produced industrial hemp CBD. But given the rapidly growing opportunity for economic growth around the industrial hemp industry, as well as the need to more closely control and regulate the safety of CBD products domestically, it would seem wise for the United States to seriously expand its hemp industry.