How hemp can accelerate the transition to the circular economy

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It was June 18, 1971 when Richard Nixon, then president of the United States of America, declared “war on drugs”, an expression that has become famous all over the world. Many will remember those turbulent years when he entered the scene Pablo Escobar, who would soon become one of the best known and wealthiest drug traffickers globally; others will have had a taste of it by getting passionate about the TV series Narcos.

And if cocaine causes damage to the body such that it is not possible to stop fighting it, with the marijuana many states have reached a truce, legalizing the use of cannabis for recreational purposes as for medical use, given the proven effectiveness of its active ingredients in the treatment of painful states, for example in chronic inflammatory diseases. Whole countries have done the same, including Canada and South Africa to name the latter.

We talked about this with Mario Catania, journalist specialized in the field, author of the book Cannabis. The future is hemp green. Who explained to us how this plant is able to absorb large quantities of CO2, to clean the soil of heavy metals; and what environmental advantages would derive from its use in sectors such as energy, fashion, construction and food.

A part of the text that personally impressed me most is the one concerning i trimmigrants. Who I am?
I had the opportunity to discover this world during the trip I made to California and Oregon in late 2016, in which I had the opportunity to carry out both journalistic works – reports, interviews and anything else – and to work physically in what is the supply chain of cannabis.

In California I went to Humboldt county, which is the epicenter of what is called the “emerald triangle”, the emerald triangle, which includes three counties – Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity – and is considered the area where most cannabis is grown per capita in the world, where there is the highest concentration of farmers because since the 1960s there has been this phenomenon of people – the hippie movement, the movement that preached the return to earth, which refused the war in Vietnam – who started to move to this forest-rich area, very protected in order to lead a community life and start growing cannabis more freely than could be done in the city.

Thus developed that area where large quantities of hemp are still grown today, and I was there at the time when we began to prepare a transition: until then marijuana had been legal only in medicine, instead in the month in which I was there, November 2016, it was also legalized for recreational purposes. The fact is that in those areas, in all those villages surrounding the valley – one of the main ones is Eureka -, during the cannabis harvest season, which runs from early summer until late September-October, there are hundreds and hundreds of people who go there just to make this collection. They are nicknamed by the population trimmigrants, which represents the union of words trimmer (the one who cleans the cannabis buds with special scissors) and immigrant.

The phenomenon is not seen too well by the population, because in recent years this mass of people who go there to look for work has increased more and more, and often there is not even work for everyone. Basically it is a heterogeneous mass of workers, let’s call them seasonal, in which young people find themselves freak [fricchettoni, ndr] arriving from Europe, young Americans who use it as an occasional job to round their wages, gentlemen of fifty / sixty / seventy years who do it with the same purpose, immigrants who come from Central America, then Mexico and surrounding areas; a lot of people who come from South America, maybe in pairs, who do these three or four months of harvest to get a figure that then allows them to live the rest of the year, with peace of mind, in South America: I saw couples who collected in three, four months of work from 10 to 25 thousand euros each and then they returned to Guatemala to spend the rest of the year doing practically nothing. I also met a Mexican boy who was aiming to raise 5-10 thousand dollars because he had a pregnant girl waiting for him in Chiapas and that money would be needed to build a house. In short, it is an incredible crossroads: the plant with the most magical flower that attracts all sorts of genius and extravagance.

Trimmigrant is the union of the words trimmer (the one who cleans the cannabis buds with special scissors) and immigrant © Uriel Sinai / Getty Images

There are those who argue that legalizing recreational marijuana may push drug traffickers to lower the cost of hard drugs, with a consequent increase in consumption. What do you think of it?
It is actually something that where cannabis has been legalized is not happening. The theory that probably underlies this reasoning is that marijuana is a passing drug. It is a theory that has recently been proven wrong, both by new branches of psychology and by various researches. For example in Japan, where there is no cannabis use, there are people who use other substances without ever having used cannabis before. According to some psychologists, if you have to identify a constant in the beginning, on a psychotropic level it is probably alcohol and cigarettes very often, and then there is a whole branch of psychology that today no longer speaks of “passage theory”, but analyzes people and their behaviors by identifying those who are more likely to abuse substances in general, for their personal history, for a thousand socio-cultural reasons.

Either way, it’s something that data isn’t happening in America. The other big fear of the prohibitionists was that by legalizing it could increase consumption among teenagers, but not even that is happening, in the sense that in the worst cases the consumption among teenagers remains unchanged, while in the best cases, such as in Nevada, it even drops by 8-10 percent, basically for two reasons: legalizing the charm of the forbidden, and with the money from the taxes on cannabis in America very serious campaigns of information on drugs in schools are carried out.

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Denver, Colorado. Some people are lined up, strictly one meter away from each other, to buy marijuana © Michael Ciaglo / Getty Images

She reports that opioid overdose deaths in the United States continue to rise. “An epidemic that – I quote his textual words – can also find a possible barrier in cannabis”. How?
Cannabis, rather than a “passing drug”, is proving to be a means by which to heal other addictions, that of opioids such as nicotine, alcohol or cocaine. In the United States this is exactly what is happening: it is a country where it is very easy to obtain opioid prescriptions, something that has gone out of control in recent years, there have also been trials, for example Johnson & Johnson recently took a multi-million dollar fine for aggressive advertising that he had made of his opioid-containing drugs. What is happening in America is that thousands of overdose people die every year because maybe they start taking these substances under a prescription and then end up taking heroin on the street.

Medical cannabis throughout this process represented a game changer: given that opioids are largely prescribed for pain therapy, and as far as cannabis is concerned, there are now dozens of studies that indicate it as one of the most suitable treatments, it has happened that in the States where cannabis was legalized for For medical use, people began to replace opioids with cannabis, and overdose cases decreased. This means that switching from opiates to therapeutic cannabis saves tens of thousands of lives.

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According to data provided by the US Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CoC), opioids are the cause of about 400,000 overdose deaths from 1999 to 2017 © Mark Wilson / Getty Images

You interviewed George Jung, one of the major cocaine traffickers of the 1970s and 1980s, and one of the pillars of the Medellín cartel. How do you think figures like yours and that of Pablo Escobar influenced American culture, and the collective imagination on a global level?
I think in a very strong way. I saw him from the way he spoke to me, saying he had “reasoned like an American, without the fears that the average American has”. In America there is still the mentality that you, what you want, you have to take it: because there is not one welfare state, there are no “protective” social conditions as there could be in Europe, the initiative is much more individual. Jung says that his attitude in life was just that, to say: “If I want something, I’ll take it.” His business puts them on a strictly capitalist level: from his point of view, he has met a market demand. It is not only a way of doing that is very American, it is also a discourse of substances: cocaine has characterized our eighties, nineties and continues to do so today because it has been associated for years with success, with a winning attitude in life, to a whole series of characteristics that marry very well with the stereotype of the one who made it in America.

Let’s go back to Italy: tell me the story of Masseria del Carmine.
It is a farm located in the surroundings of the former Ilva. At the time – let’s talk about a few years ago – it had to close because particularly high levels of dioxin had been found in the sheepfolds. Hemp, among the many properties it has, is a “phytoremediation” plant, that is it is able to extract pollutants and heavy metals from the soil and store them internally, mainly in the roots and leaves. From 2014 Canapuglia and Abap (Apulian environmental biologists associations) have started this phytoremediation project with the hemp of the farm. It was one of the first Italian experiences in this sense and was then repeated in Sardinia. In the world, one of the first studies concerned Chernobyl in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster that we all know, and it was the scientist who conducted the research, Ilya Raskin, who coined the term “phytoremediation”.

What could be the role of hemp in the energy transition?
First of all, being a plant that can be used in all its parts, it fits perfectly with the concept of circular economy. From hemp, biodegradable plastic is obtained, as well as fuels that could help solve the problem of the use of fossil sources: already in 1941, when Henry Ford created the Hemp body car, he built it with a shell made of soy, hemp and other vegetables and was fed precisely on ethanol made from hemp.

Another topic is the use of hemp in green building: to date, construction has an impact in terms of CO emissions2, 30-40 percent globally. Hemp, mixed with lime, gives life to a whole series of materials that can be used in construction and is the basis of the only construction chain that is considered carbon negativethat is, it removes more CO from the atmosphere2 of what is produced in the whole process. This is because cannabis absorbs on average four times the carbon dioxide compared to trees. There is a study by the Polytechnic of Milan that claims that a cubic meter of hemp and lime can draw from twenty to sixty kilos of CO2. In addition, houses built in this way boast anti-seismic qualities.

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A cannabis sample at Rangsit university in Bangkok, Thailand. It was the first nation in Southeast Asia to authorize the use of therapeutic cannabis in 2019 © Lauren DeCicca / Getty Images

What are the advantages of hemp fiber?
To date we no longer have a textile hemp supply chain in Italy, but until the 1940s and 1950s we were the second largest producers in the world in terms of quantity and first in quality. Then, thanks to various factors, production fell sharply. Someone is now trying to restart it. And there would be great environmental benefits: cotton is one of the most polluting crops on the planet; it occupies 2.4 percent of fields around the world, but affects global sales of insecticides for 24 percent and pesticides for 11. Hemp is more absorbent, resistant and insulating than cotton; cultivation requires little water and in many cases can be tackled without pesticides. Furthermore, hemp fabric has antibacterial properties. In Italy, a nice thing that happened recently is that several companies have launched a production of hemp masks that can be washed and reused, and could therefore solve the problem of disposal.

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What are the properties of flour, oil and hemp seeds?
For the production of food the so-called “seed” hemp is used, which therefore produces a large quantity of seeds. These can be either eaten like this or peeled, or are squeezed to obtain the oil, which can be used both in nutrition and in cosmetics. It contains omega 3 and omega 6 in the right ratio, phytosteroids, vitamins, proteins, antioxidants. It is considered a food that, if taken daily, can even strengthen our immune system and bring down problems such as high levels of bad cholesterol.





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