The farming communities of regional NSW, especially in the Griffith area and the northern rivers region near Nimbin, were celebrating this week when the Iemma Government introduced the Hemp Industry Bill.

Without the usual spin doctor’s fanfare, the legislation was slipped unannounced into the NSW Parliament by a junior parliamentary secretary.

Steve Whan, MP for the Queanbeyan-based seat of Monaro on the ACT, introduced the bill on behalf of Emergency Services and Water Minister Nathan Rees, MP for Toongabbie in outer western Sydney. What commercial hemp growing has to do with emergency services and/or water wasn’t immediately obvious.

Why wasn’t it moved by the Health Minister Reba Meagher, MP for Cabramatta, or the Police Minister David Campbell, MP for Keira, whose departments have been intimately involved in the bill’s drafting? No explanation was offered.

Whan told the almost deserted chamber:

This bill establishes a licensing scheme for the commercial production of industrial hemp in NSW. It will bring NSW into line with other States, such as Queensland and Victoria. It will allow farmers in NSW of good repute to grow this crop which has so many exciting applications: from building blocks to paper production. It is now time to remove the prohibition on the commercial production of industrial hemp in this State.

The timing of the Bill’s presentation is what’s important. Farm production of hemp is a long-standing demand of the NSW Greens who have four MPs in the upper house — Lee Rhiannon, Ian Cohen, Sylvia Hale and Dr John Kaye.

Greens preferences helped push the ALP over the line in marginal seats at the state election in March 2007 and they play a critical role in supporting Labor’s legislative program in the upper house, with the notable exception of privatising electricity.

The Greens deny any grubby deal with the Labor Party on legalising hemp farming but government sources point out that it was on the Greens’ “wish list” during pre-election preference negotiations.

The legislation gives sweeping powers to the Director-General of the Department of Primary Industries to administer the licence scheme.

The DG will receive all applications and can grant licences for up to five years. Only people of “good repute” will qualify and those with criminal records will be disqualified.

Whan added: “The bill will remove the current power of the Director-General of NSW Health to issue authorities for research trials of industrial hemp. This responsibility will be transferred to the Director-General of the Department of Primary Industries.”

What law enforcement agency will supervise the lawful crop-growing? Whan explained: “Police officers and inspectors appointed under the new legislation will have a range of powers to ensure that they can act quickly and decisively in response to breaches.”

So Australia’s finest and specially chosen inspectors from the Department of Primary Industries, that bastion of efficiency and tough discipline over illegal behaviour in the rural sector, will be the custodians of legal hemp production. Am I the only one that smells a roach in all this?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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