Government declares hemp seed 'safe to eat'

The Government has changed rules around hemp seed so that it's treated as just another food - a move which aims to "stimulate regional economies". 

"The Misuse of Drugs (Industrial Hemp) Regulations 2006 and the Food Regulations 2015 will be amended to allow the sale of hemp seed as food," Food Safety Minister Damien O'Connor said on Tuesday.   

He said the move is "great news for the hemp industry, which has argued for decades that the production of hemp seed foods will stimulate regional economies, create jobs and generate $10-20 million of export revenue within 3 to 5 years". 

Hemp seeds are "safe to eat, nutritious and do not have a psychoactive effect," said Mr O'Connor, adding that hemp flowers and leaves will "not be permitted" under the new changes. 

The levels of active cannabinoids in low-THC hemp food products are "well below any level used in pharmaceutical grade cannabis-based medical products," the Government said in a document explaining the decision. 

"Products from cannabis that have a potential therapeutic effect must follow a different pathway to hemp seeds as food," it says. "The label of the food must not include the words 'cannabis', 'marijuana' or words of similar meaning."

"The labels must not include an image or representation of any part of the cannabis plant, including the leaf," the statement adds. Regulatory changes will come into force on 12 November. 

The Ministry for Primary Industries will ensure the THC levels in the hemp food products are monitored through the normal process of ensuring food is safe and suitable to eat, the Government says. 

These processes involve registering a business under the Food Act 2014, following a risk management programme, and meeting all other MPI requirements that are applicable to the product and situation.

Whole hemp seeds currently require an import licence from the Ministry of Health under the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 1977, which will remain the same, the Government says. However hulled hemp seeds and hemp food products will not require a licence.

In April 2017, trans-Tasman Ministers approved a change to the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code to allow the sale of hemp seed as a food for human consumption. But before this could happen, amendments had to be made to current regulations. 

"There were no objections to the proposal to allow low-THC hemp food products from other government agencies, including the Ministry of Health, New Zealand Police, New Zealand Customs, and the Ministry of Transport," the Government says. 

Hemp is a cannabis plant species known to be one of the fastest growing, and was one of the first plants to be spun into usable fibre around 10,000 years ago. The plant does not have therapeutic effects because it has low levels of the active component of cannabis extracts. 

"Hulled, non-viable seeds and their products will be now be viewed as just another edible seed," says Mr O'Connor. "We will continue to ease pathways for our farmers and growers to produce the finest food and fibre for the world's most discerning customers."

A recent survey revealed growing support for cannabis law reform in New Zealand, with two thirds of respondents saying the drug should be either legalised or decriminalised for personal possession.

New Zealanders could be voting in a bumper referendum on cannabis by the end of next year. The Green Party was promised a referendum on legalising the personal use of cannabis at or by the 2020 election as part of their coalition agreement with Labour.