By Evie Andreou
IT WAS simple curiosity that got me out of bed at 5.30am on a very hot August Sunday morning to go and check out the hype surrounding the first industrial hemp harvest on the island since the 1930s.
The organisers had invited the public to help harvest the crop and arranged a convoy of cars from Nicosia to Akaki. Hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant, containing negligible amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the stuff that gets you high. Without it, the plant, which used to be widely grown around the world, including Cyprus, has a host of other uses from bricks, to textiles to paper and even as food.
We had been told to bring pruning shears, long pants, closed shoes and water. The meeting point was Makarios Stadium at 7am. I was early and half thought I’d be stood up but by 6.50am people began to arrive.
“Are you here for the harvest?” was the question everyone was asking.
Soon, Maria (she wanted to keep her surname private), arrived and introduced herself as the woman behind the hemp field and everyone – around 30 people in all – headed off.
At Akaki we were soon greeted by the sight of the only green field around.
“It’s cannabis,” exclaimed someone, not believing how similar the plants looked to the smokeable variety. Everyone seemed both baffled and fascinated at being in the middle of a field of cannabis plants, the first one to be harvested on the island for almost 80 years.
“Come on in, have a look at the plants, you can even eat the seeds,” said Maria.
They were crunchy and tasteless but apparently with a high nutritional value.
Then came the hard part – having to actually harvest the plants.
“Try to cut it as low as possible, the cane is very useful,” Maria said.
By 9am the sun was already high in the sky but we kept going. People were cutting hemp, carrying them to the net, chatting and getting to know each other, stopping to catch a breath and drink some water.
I learned how when one farmer, Solon Grigoriou, went to retrieve his hemp seeds from the post office, he brought Greens MP Giorgos Perdikis with him so he wouldn’t get in trouble with the law.
Adamos Christoforou, a computer scientist and researcher on industrial hemp and medical cannabis, who was in Akaki told me of the many uses of hemp and how easy it was to grow as no fertiliser was needed.
“This plant is our planet’s salvation,” said Christoforou. It takes 60 years for a tree to grow in order to be cut and used, but hemp can be grown in eight months, and can be used for the same purposes.
“Hempcrete is a very healthy alternative to the brick, it is breathable, absorbs moisture; prevents development of fungi, it lasts longer than concrete, and if you throw it in the garden becomes fertiliser for your plants,” he said.
Christoforou said that until 1936, when it was prohibited, industrial cannabis was cultivated in Cyprus and that he had found in archives a list with the names of 186 hemp cultivators, mainly from Paphos.
A young couple, Caroline and Clement Ryan, came all the way from Pano Akourdalia in Paphos in order to participate in the harvest. They said the name Akourdalia came from the French word ‘corde’, which means rope, as a lot of hemp used to grow therein the past.
“We are excited to be part of this, because hopefully hemp is a way forward in the 21st century. Ecological solutions can solve so many issues in the world, from making cars to making all sorts of things really,” Clement Ryan said.
“It just makes sense for the ecological, biodegradable future of our planet to grow things like this, that don’t take from the soil, but they give and they give a lot to us, on many levels. I’m a health practitioner and I find the medicinal benefits of hemp are astronomical,” said Caroline.
Another couple, also from Paphos, Irini and Douglas McIntyre, were considering planting not only hemp, but other plants and trees which had disappeared from their area.
“It is important that products like this are grown and marketed locally, it’s an important product. It’s been demonised and part of the process has to be to un-demonise it,” Douglas McIntyre said.
Hemp has proven to be an important source of income in other EU countries and there is demand from the EU, which is currently importing hemp fibre from China, he said.
Christoforou said that Cyprus had missed out on 10 years of subsidies for not harmonising agricultural legislation.
“Other EU countries have been utilising the subsidies for ten years now and have built infrastructure for the process of hemp; Cyprus could have been among them” Christoforou said.
He said that as a first step, Cypriots could invest in machines that make hempcrete or extract fibre from the plant and sell it abroad, until infrastructure is made on the island. “We can take one step at a time,” he said.
First step to towards medical marijuana
GROWING industrial hemp is part of the first step in a campaign to raise awareness, not only of the industrial and nutritious uses of the plant, but ultimately to pave the way for the legalisation of medical marijuana.
“I have been maintaining the medical cannabis Facebook page for a year now because there are many cancer patients in Cyprus in need of the cannabis oil,” said hemp boss Maria.
“We planted the hemp as a first step in our campaign aiming to raise awareness for the need to legalise medical marijuana.”
“We want to start a public debate,” added Adamos Christoforou, who was an independent candidate at the Euro-elections last May. He said it was time for the propaganda to end and for both sides to openly discuss the issue so that people can be properly informed.
“Tell me why you think it should be illegal and I will tell you why I believe the opposite,” Christoforou said.
Maria said she was preparing a documentary aiming to educate Cypriots on the uses of hemp and on medical marijuana. The documentary will tell the story of hemp cultivation in Cyprus, then and now.
“We will also have personal testimonies from cancer patients in Cyprus,” said Maria.
“A little while ago I said that I would legally plant hemp and I did, and in the near future I will legally plant medical marijuana,” she added.
Planting hemp is allowed under EU law but is in violation of national legislation.
The health ministry says it’s illegal but the Cyprus Agricultural Payments Organisation (CAPO) – the body responsible for authorising plants and seeds for cultivation – had included hemp in its list of subsidised products, with a €42-per-donum subsidy. Agriculture Minister Nicos Kouyialis said that the process was underway for a decree to be approved with a set of criteria that would allow the cultivation of industrial cannabis.
Some 20 US states have legalised cannabis for medical use. Medical marijuana is also currently legal or decriminalised in the Czech Republic, Finland, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain.