The farmers, scientists, and government in China have been quietly revolutionizing the hemp industry with incredible progress. This move has been done with such careful attention to detail, that China — a country where marijuana possession might garner the death penalty — has become a dominant power in the cultivation and production of hemp and its many derivatives.
Right now, China is the producer of approximately half of the world’s legal hemp, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
In the provinces where hemp production is legal, growers of the plant sell stems to textile factories to produce high-quality fabrics. As well, the leaves of the plant are sold to the pharmaceutical industry for medicine while the seeds are sold to food producers to make various snacks, oils, and drinks.
For many farmers in China, hemp brings in approximately $1,500 USD per hectare which is vastly more profitable than traditional crops such as soybeans, which are valued at approximately $124 USD per hectare.
Because the harvest does so well for local farmers, authorities had been turning a blind eye to its production for years before legalizing and regulating hemp in many areas at the turn of this century.
It’s also not just the regulation of the Chinese hemp industry that has made China the top crop manager. Over the last few decades, researchers in the nation have created hybrid species that are able to thrive in the many different climates throughout China. This includes strains that can grow in arctic conditions in the north and the subtropical areas of China’s southern regions.
It should be noted that cannabis has been growing in China for centuries. Hemp fabrics dating more than 3,000 years have been found in tombs, and the fiber is believed to be the base for the earliest forms of paper.
After the country became the People’s Republic in the late 1940s, the communist government classified the plant as an illicit drug with harsh sentences for possession and cultivation.
Research into hemp became an important task in the late 1970s. The military wanted to develop a fabric that could keep soldiers clean and dry in Vietnam’s humidity. Because of that extensive research, more than half of the world’s 600-plus patents on hemp are held in China, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization.
The incredible number of patents held by China is a growing concern in the Western pharmaceutical industry, as some businesspeople believe the Chinese can dominate cannabis as medicine, now that marijuana reform is becoming more prevalent around the world.
“Because cannabis in Western medicine is becoming accepted, the predominance of Chinese patents suggests that pharmaceutical sciences are evolving quickly in China, outpacing Western capabilities,” said Dr. Luc Duchesne, a Canadian businessman, and biochemist.
“[Chinese traditional medicine] is poised to take advantage of a growing trend. The writing is on the wall, westernized Chinese traditional medicine is coming to a dispensary near you.”
Although China does not make a show of this juggernaut of an industry, it’s clear that hemp is of great importance to the nation. In the kaleidoscope of global cannabis reform, this quiet but willing player could be an integral piece of the legalization puzzle.