Pubdate: Sun, 05 May 2019
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2019 The New York Times Company
Author: Steven Lee Myers


SHANCHONG, China - China has made your iPhone, your Nikes and, chances
are, the lights on your Christmas tree. Now, it wants to grow your

Two of China's 34 regions are quietly leading a boom in cultivating
cannabis to produce cannabidiol, or CBD, the nonintoxicating compound
that has become a consumer health and beauty craze in the United
States and beyond.

They are doing so even though cannabidiol has not been authorized for
consumption in China, a country with some of the strictest
drug-enforcement policies in the world.

"It has huge potential," said Tan Xin, the chairman of Hanma
Investment Group, which in 2017 became the first company to receive
permission to extract cannabidiol here in southern China. The chemical
is marketed abroad - in oils, sprays and balms as treatment for
insomnia, acne and even diseases like diabetes and multiple sclerosis.
(The science, so far, is not conclusive.)

The movement to legalize the mind-altering kind of cannabis has
virtually no chance of emerging in China. But the easing of the
plant's stigma in North America has generated global demand for
medicinal products - especially for cannabidiol - that companies in
China are rushing to fill.

Hanma's subsidiary in Shanchong, a village in a remote valley west of
Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, cultivates more than 1,600
acres of hemp, the variety of cannabis that is also used in rope,
paper and fabrics. From the crop, it extracts cannabidiol in oil and
crystal form at a gleaming factory it opened two years ago, in a
restricted zone next to a weapons manufacturer.

"It is very good for people's health," Tian Wei, general manager of
the subsidiary, Hempsoul, said during an interview at the factory,
which was punctuated by test gunfire from the manufacturer next door.

"China may have become aware of this aspect a little bit late, but
there will definitely be opportunities in the future," Mr. Tian said.

China has, in fact, cultivated cannabis for thousands of years - for
textiles, for hemp seeds and oil and even, according to some, for
traditional medicine.

The Divine Farmer's Classic of Materia Medica, a text from the first
or second century, attributed curative powers to cannabis, its seeds
and its leaves for a variety of ailments.

"Prolonged consumption frees the spirit light and lightens the body,"
it said, according to a translation cited in an article in the journal
Frontiers in Pharmacology.

The People's Republic of China, after its founding in 1949, took a
hard line on illegal drugs, and cultivating and using marijuana are
strictly forbidden to this day, with traffickers facing the death
penalty in extreme cases.

After signing the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances
in 1985, China went even further. It banned all cultivation of hemp -
which had long been grown in Yunnan, a mountainous province that
borders Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam and is among China's poorest.
Farmers produced hemp to make rope and textiles and China had banned
it even though it has only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, or
THC, the mind-altering compound found in marijuana.

At a news conference in Beijing last month, Liu Yuejin, deputy
director of the National Narcotics Control Commission, said the
momentum toward legalization in other countries meant the Chinese
authorities would "more strictly strengthen the supervision of
industrial cannabis."

The Hempsoul factory has dozens of closed-circuit cameras that stream
videos directly to the provincial public security bureau.

China relented on industrial hemp only in 2010, allowing Yunnan to
resume production. Hemp then was used principally for textiles,
including the uniforms of the People's Liberation Army, but soon the
products expanded.

The growing industry has brought much-needed investment to Yunnan. The
mild, springlike climate is exemplary for growing cannabis, and a
farmer can earn the equivalent of $300 an acre for it, more than for
flax or rapeseed, Mr. Tian of Hempsoul said.

Hempsoul is one of four companies in Yunnan that have received
licenses to process hemp for cannabidiol, putting more than 36,000
acres under cultivation. Now others are joining the rush.

In February, the province granted a license to three subsidiaries of
Conba Group, a pharmaceutical company based in Zhejiang Province. A
company based in the city of Qingdao, Huaren Pharmaceutical, said
recently it was applying for permission to grow hemp in greenhouses,
which already line the landscape around Kunming.

Other regions have taken notice, too. In 2017, Heilongjiang, a
province along China's northeastern border with Russia, joined Yunnan
in allowing cannabis cultivation. Jilin, the province next door, said
this year that it would also move to do so.

The flurry of announcements sent the companies' stocks soaring on
Chinese exchanges, prompting regulators to step in to restrict trading.

While the health benefits of cannabidiol remain uncertain, the United
States Food and Drug Administration last year approved the first use
of it as a drug to treat two rare and severe forms of epilepsy. Other
potential uses are being studied.

China permits the sale of hemp seeds and hemp oil and the use of CBD
in cosmetics, but it has not yet approved cannabidiol for use in food
and medicines. So, for now, the bulk of Hempsoul's product - roughly
two tons a year - is bound for markets overseas. Mr. Tian said he
believed it was only a matter of time before China, too, approved the
compound for ingestion.

Hanma's ambitions are global. It has acquired an extraction plant in
Las Vegas, which is expected to begin production soon, and it plans
one in Canada. Mr. Tan, the chairman, said he hoped that China, with
the world's largest market, would follow the lead of the United
States, which he called "the best-educated" market for the benefits of

"It's a new application, but one that carries forward our tradition,"
he said, citing the ancient texts describing its medicinal purposes.

Yang Ming, a scientist with the Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Science
who is one of China's leading experts on hemp, said the plant's seeds
were traditionally formed into a ball and used to treat constipation,
but the psychotropic qualities of cannabis were not broadly known by
farmers or other residents.

As China gradually opened up following the Cultural Revolution,
however, foreign visitors to Yunnan in the late 1980s and early 1990s
discovered an abundance of cannabis growing wild. That, in part,
turned the region into a destination for backpackers and adventurers
seeking a certain kind of experience.

"They would go to the villagers' cannabis fields, pick the buds and
bring them back to the hotel to dry and smoke," Dr. Yang said. "Some
of them became deranged and ran around naked after smoking it."

That's when the authorities intervened. Dr. Yang, originally from
Yunnan, was a recent graduate of the agricultural university in
Beijing at the time. He was assigned to study cannabis, and he has
been doing so ever since. His avatar on social media is a cannabis

The academy has been breeding its own varieties of hemp - each of
which requires approval from the police - to ensure the plant contains
less than 0.3 percent of THC, the international standard for cannabis.
There are nine varieties now, and Dr. Yang's team continues to
research more.

One of the varieties, Yunnan Hemp No. 7, allows the extraction of
greater amounts of cannabidiol. While the compound's use in commercial
products remains in its infancy, Dr. Yang has watched the stigma of
its association with marijuana begin to evaporate.

"Other countries," he said, with pride of parenthood, "really like our
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