Tasmanian drug squad detectives watched as a quater of a hectare of marijuana plants was cut down. The plants were so thick it was difficult to walk between them and they stood well over head height - it was possibly one of the police force's biggest bust.
But this crop of cannabis sativa was grown under the supervision of the University of Tasmania with the full knowledge of health authorities, and early this year the stalks ended up in the laboratories of two of Australia's biggest paper-makers. The harvest was the culmination of five years' work by conservationist Patsy Harmsen. During the height of the aborted Wesley Vale pulp mill debate, she began investigating whether Indian hemp might be an alternative to logging the state's old growth native forests.
Many people dismissed her idea, but she persevered and built enough support to be allowed to import hemp seed from eastern Europe, where it is a major crop. The seed is crucial. Unlike cannabis that attracts police attention, hemp used in paper has been selectively bred to have low levels of the psychoactive constituent of cannabis, tetrahydocannabinol. So there are no highs from smoking this stuff - just a raging headache, according to those who have tried it.
To get that message across has been the hardest part of Harmsen's quest to make it a commercial crop. "We have done a pretty good job with the education campaign," she says. "People are now keen to at least have a look at what we are proposing. The farmers are really keen. Our big hope is Australian Newsprint Mills [ANM], who are keeping an open mind to see if anything is going to come of it."
According to David Quinn, ANM's corporate affairs manager, the company is motivated by the need to look for alternative sources of fibre to native hardwood. "The company has a bit of a reputation for looking at ideas that are a bit out of the box," he says.
Hemp may replace expensive imported kraft pulp, which is used to give paper strength. Preliminary pulping results are encouraging, although Quinn says that in the short to medium term, recycled paper will be the major alternative fibre source.
ANM has also helped fund a visit by two Dutch scientists, who are close to establishing a pilet hemp mill in The Netherlands, to give advice on production and growing techniques.
The plant isn't restricted to paper production. It can also be used in building materials, textiles, animal feed and bedding and in the production of edible oils.
"What we need now is a proper feasibility study before people go off half-cocked on the basisi of my research," Harmsen says. "Business and government won't look at it till we've got the whole thing packaged in the right jargon."
Having spent her own money getting the project up, she's now looking for business or corporate support. Growing the crop has advantages which Harmsen is selling to farmers. She claims it doesn't need herbicides and can be used as a weed suppressor, making it ideal for crop rotation, and can be grown on marginal soil which is improved by its planting.
But questions are still being asked. Apart from health authorities and police, who are both concerned about the possible illegitimate use of the plants, Tasmanian poppy growers are nervous about what's happening. They cultivate the opium poppy, which is also illegal to grow, under licence for the manufacture of commercial drugs. And they see hemp as a threat to the clean image of their crop, which has been certified for worldwide sale by American regulators.
Tasmanian Primary Industry Minister Robin Gray, as a former agricultural consultant, has been interested enough to allow hemp to be evaluated, arguing against poppy growers who sought to have the project stopped. But he's also concerned that hemp would compete for good agricultural land, of which there is a shortage: Personally, I'm not optimistic that it can be grown on a scale to produce the large volumes needed for a paper-making mill; perhaps it could supply a small cottage-type industry."
To supply a small pulp mill, 6000 hectares of land would be required to grow hemp to produce 40,000 tonnes of pulp.
There are also unanswered questions about whether the economics of planting an annualhemp crop compare with plantation or regrowth eucalypt.
Harmsen admits that compared with naturally regrown eucalypt, hemp may not stack up, but with a trend towards costly plantations the figures should improve.
Quinn says it is easy to find lots of excuses not to consider hemp. But he says that in the long term it is a fibre that may replace imports and, if not feed a large mill, it could supply a niche pulp and paper market.
The Tasmanian hemp experiment is part of a worldwide resurgence in a plant that's been cultivated by humans since 8000 B.C. Britain recently allowed the first commercial planting of hemp after it had been prohibited for many years. "For them it is purely business, nothing to do with the environment, and that's the way we have to go," says Harmsen.