'Will it get me high?' As edible hemp hits Australian menus, customers still wonder

Max Brearley
·5-min read

Hemp seed for human consumption has been legal in Australia since 2017, although the leaf and flower are still off limits. It’s “ridiculous”, says Georgina Wilkinson of Margaret River Hemp Co. “We are probably – us and New Zealand – going to be the last two countries allowed to use that. So you can make hemp teas from the leaf, but we’re not allowed to.

“We did a survey about two years ago,” she says. “I would say probably 60% of those surveyed still believe the seed will get them high.”

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Wilkinson’s family cultivates 50 hectares of hemp in the south-west of Western Australia – used for building materials, clothing, cosmetics and food.

Hemp growers, she says, have mandated testing when crops come to flower, the time when THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive constituent of cannabis) levels are highest. “Everybody grows from seed that doesn’t give you high THC because you’ll lose your crop if it goes over,” she says. “In most states now, your crop has to be under 1% THC, which will not make you high. It’s best if it’s around 0.5% because if it goes over that it can’t go into food.”

A hemp plant being pollinated in the US
A hemp plant being pollinated in the US. In Australia, hemp crops have mandated testing for THC levels when plants come to flower. Photograph: Don Ryan/AP

“It’s on the menu in Byron,” says Darren Robertson, chef and co-owner of the Three Blue Ducks group of restaurants. “A farm green salad – we just dress it in vinaigrette and then toss it in hemp seeds, just in its purest form.”

Does he ever get questions from diners? “Whether they’re going to hallucinate and shit?” laughs Robertson, finishing my question. “Maybe a year-and-a-half, two years ago when we were selling little packets in the produce store. Back then it raised a few eyebrows, but I think there’s more understanding now that they’re not going to get high from it.”

Robertson is focused on flavour, texture and hemp’s nutritional value: it is a good source of plant-based protein and an excellent source of omega three and six fatty acids.

“They’re these nutty, buttery little things,” says Robertson. “We’ve used them in tartlets and Bircher muesli. We do a hemp seed granola, just oats and macadamias, goji berries and all that sort of jazz. And then at home, smoothies, on my breakfast, added to stir fries, all sorts of uses. It’s not a super strong flavour but it definitely brings something to a dish.”

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Robertson points me to Trent Paola of Nimbin Hemp Fed Wagyu, who farms close to the hippie hinterland town. “We bought a farm in Nimbin and thought: jeez that’s funny to call it Nimbin Grass Fed,” Paola says. “And then we thought: why don’t we feed them hemp? It’s becoming a big thing.” He placed high protein cattle pellets at one end of a feeding trough (a supplement they know) and hemp byproduct at the other end. “I watched where they went and would you believe it, they were three deep around the hemp – attracted to the stuff they can smell has got nutritional benefit to them.”

Paola says he can’t spruik any great scientific revelation, just what he observes, but feeding livestock hemp does have form. Farmers in the Netherlands have fed it to cattle for years, and research in Sweden and Canada has shown elevated nutritional values in milk and eggs where test groups of cows and chickens are fed hemp seed and oil for prolonged periods.

Like many primary producers, Wilkinson is looking to value-added products, which may not make up the majority of volume but offer margins and raise awareness of hemp. At their retail stores in Margaret River and Fremantle raw, vegan, hemp chocolate is a good seller. She also advocates the use of hemp oil – unheated – on food.

Hemp utilisation is rife in the drinks world, with hemp milk as a dairy alternative, smoked hemp gin (from Margaret River’s Giniversity), hemp beer, water, energy drinks and the recent release of a hemp Semillon from natural wine label Dormilona.

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Winemaker Josephine Perry sees some value for people in novelty, to “enjoy it because it’s a point of a difference”, but she also believes that hemp has its attributes, adding “heaps of tannins”. Taking 10kg of hemp seeds in something akin to a big tea bag, she co-fermented them with a tonne of Semillon grapes. Three months on skins in an egg-shaped concrete fermenter and the result was a little orange wine”, Perry says.

Sold direct through her website, she’s been impressed by the positive response to something that started as a conversation with an industry peer and a few benchtop tests in the winery.

As Vice President of the Australian Industrial Hemp Alliance, Wilkinson is concerned about Australian growers losing out in this fast-growing market. Soon after the 2017 changes Tasmania, by far Australia’s biggest producer “sold out” and the market was “inundated” with Canadian, Chinese and European imports, she says.

Farmers weren’t geared for the demand. Her hope is that as hemp seed, oil and perhaps in the future leaves and flowers, become more mainstream we’ll take note of where they’re produced, and buy Australian.