Questions on Hemp

Changed on: 30.03.2017

Hemp

Hemp (Cannabis) is one of the most ancient agricultural and ornamental plants in the world. The oldest evidence of the use of hemp fibres dates back to the Third Millennium BC. Until the 20th century, hemp fibres were widely used for the production of canvas, ropes and cords. Today, they have applications in textiles, pulp, paper- and natural-fibre composites. In addition to usage as a fibre and oil plant, hemp also used in medicinal products and (illegally) as a narcotic (marijuana, hashish).

Hemp (Cannabis) is one of the most ancient agricultural and ornamental plants in the world. The oldest evidence of the use of hemp fibres dates back to the Third Millennium BC. Until the 20th century, hemp fibres were widely used for the production of canvas, ropes and cords. Today, they have applications in textiles, pulp, paper- and natural-fibre composites. In addition to usage as a fibre and oil plant, hemp also used in medicinal products and (illegally) as a narcotic (marijuana, hashish).

Ingredients of hemp

Ingredients of hemp

Numerous different ingredients have been identified within the hemp plant (Cannabis sativa), including around 60 different cannabinoids. The best known is THC (Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol), which causes a narcotic effect. Another prominent cannabinoid, cannabidiol (CBD), is not psychoactive -- therefore, it does not trigger such types of intoxication. CBD is believed to have neuroprotective, antipsychotic, anti-inflammatory, anti-nausea and muscle-relaxing (antispasmodic) effects. It also believed to have inhibiting/healing effects for specific types of cancer.

However, there has been no scientific evidence to confirm many of the effects attributed to cannabidiol to date.  Psychoactive cannabinoids are stored in special glandular hairs in the inflorescence and can also be found to a lesser degree in the leaves and stalks of the plant. Hemp seeds do not contain cannabinoids, but are rich in fatty oils. The levels of individual ingredients in these plants depend on the variety of hemp and climate factors.

Cultivation of hemp grown for fibre

Cultivation of hemp grown for fibre

Fibre hemp is regulated in the EU and Austria by the Seed and Plant Variety Act. Cultivation of the variety in question is not subject to the Austrian Narcotic Substances Act as long the THC content does not exceed 0.3 %. This makes it possible to obtain fibres and seeds, as well as leaves.

The flowers and inflorescence containing THC may solely be used for medical or scientific purposes in line with the provisions stated in the Austrian Narcotic Substances Act and only processed by commercial businesses that are licensed to produce medicines and toxins or have a wholesale license for medicines and toxins in line with Art. 94 Item 32 of the 1994 Austrian Commercial Code, Federal Law Gazette No 194/1994, as amended.

In addition, it is important to note that the only hemp varieties that are financially supported in the EU are not allowed to contain more than 0.2% THC in their dry matter, in accordance with Article 39 of Regulation (EC) No 73/2009. Each variety must pass a two-year, registration audit for licensing, during which characteristics such as uniformity, stability and distinctness have to be checked. In Austria, a test value (the examination of the cultivation value at various locations) is demanded for a period of at least two years. If the results of both tests are satisfactory, the variety is approved for cultivation.

Cultivation of hemp for drug manufacturing in Austria

Cultivation of hemp for drug manufacturing in Austria

In Austria, only AGES and any of its units specifically set up for this purpose are legally entitled to cultivate cannabis plants and produce narcotic substances for the purpose of drug manufacturing and related scientific purposes in line with the Austrian Narcotic Substances Act (Art. 6, Federal Law Gazette I No 112/1997 as amended).

This type of cultivation is subject to strict conditions and high security standards and may only be carried out by AGES under the supervision and monitoring of the Federal Ministry of Health and Women's Affairs (BMGF).

AGES is only allowed to distribute the harvested and dried cannabis plants and any cannabis obtained from them to commercial businesses that have the appropriate licenses for the production and wholesaling of pharmaceuticals and toxins in line with Art. 94 Item 32 of the Commercial Code of 1994, Federal Law Gazette No 194/1994, as amended. 

Cannabis as a medicinal product

Cannabis as a medicinal product

In Austria, there is currently one licensed medicinal product containing active compounds of cannabis. It comprises the combination of two extracts -- one comes from a THC-rich cannabis variety, and the other one from a cannabidiol-rich variety. This pharmaceutical has been licensed to improve spasmodic symptoms in patients with multiple sclerosis.

THC as a pure substance (also known under the generic name ‘Dronabinol’) can be dispensed in Austria as a so-called “Magistrale Zubereitung” – a medicine individually prepared directly in the pharmacy (pharmaceutical formulation). Each doctor may request such preparations using a narcotics prescription. Currently, doctors are not required to specify narrowly defined indications. Pharmacy-prepared prescriptions are most likely used for spasticity in patients with paralysis, as well as to treat symptoms in multiple sclerosis patients and in patients with other nervous disorders, to relieve chronic pain not responding to any other treatment (cancer, diseases of the nervous system), or for loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting in cancer and AIDS patients. The costs of such preparations are normally covered by the state health insurer, following approval by the Chief Physician, if the administration of the preparation can be scientifically and therapeutically justified.

The medicinal effect and safety of cannabidiol (not in combination with THC) is currently being tested in clinical studies.

Hemp as food

Hemp as food

Only hemp varieties with THC content below 0.3% that do not fall under the Narcotic Substances Act or corresponding regulations may be used in food production. As a result, an analysis of the THC content is conducted at that time when the hemp plant is producing the most THC (end of flowering).

Foods containing hemp include hemp leaves (tea), hemp seeds, hemp oil, hemp flour, beverages (beer, lemonade). Hemp is also used in the manufacture of cosmetic products.
AGES has examined more than 130 samples of hemp food between 2007 and 2016. Only one sample in 2008, a piece of gingerbread made of hemp flour, was assessed to be unfit for human consumption due to its high THC content.

In the recent past, the European Food Safety Authority EFSA has carried out a risk assessment on THC in foods of animal origin (http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/pub/4141) and has come to the conclusion that a daily intake of such foods with a THC content up to 1 µg / kg body weight (acute reference dose) is not expected to lead to adverse health effects. This was also confirmed in Commission Recommendation (EU) 2016/2115.

Thus, the appropriate maximum THC content depends on the amount of food consumed and must be determined for each group of foodstuffs on an individual basis. However, an individual risk assessment must be carried out should THC be detected in a food product, as long as no appropriate maximum values have been specified. The assessment determines the marketability of the food product in question taking into account the amount of food consumed and the acute reference dose set by EFSA. Moreover, the 0.2 % THC mentioned in the chapter “Cultivation of hemp grown for fibre” is often taken as a threshold value to document the safety and lack of harm to health of the hemp variety cultivated. This maximum value does not apply to foods, but is exclusive to the cultivation of hemp grown for fibre.

CBD as food supplement or functional food ingredient

CBD as food supplement or functional food ingredient

Cannabinoid-containing oils / extracts marketed mainly as food supplements are quite a new trend.  However, such products do not conform to the definition of food supplements as stated in Art. 3 Item 4 of the Austrian Food Safety and Consumer Protection Act (LMSVG, Federal Law Gazette I No 1372006, as amended). As a result, food law does not apply to these products.
The Cannabidiol concentrations of such extracts are much higher than those of conventional food products made from hemp. There are no current studies that sufficiently examine the possible health effects of concentrations at these levels. In addition, such CBD preparations always contain varying levels of THC and must, therefore, be considered separately based on their potential adverse health effects.

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