Cannabis cultivation sites experience post-Brexit workforce shortages

21st June 2021

Medical cannabis cultivation sites in the UK are experiencing a labour shortage, according to the company that owns the largest cannabis production site in the country.

British Sugar, whose cultivation site provides cannabis for use in epilepsy medication produced under the US company Jazz Pharmaceuticals, has blamed changes to immigration policy following the UK’s exit from the European Union.

The cannabis cultivation sector was excluded from a pilot visa scheme for farm workers which was designed to replace the free movement of workers from the EU.

The government’s seasonal agricultural workers’ scheme permits UK farms to employ up to 30,000 workers from abroad for up to six months. However, cannabis cultivation and other farming businesses have been excluded from the scheme as they are not growing food.

According to the Financial Times, the agriculture director of British Sugar, Peter Watson, stated: “It is disappointing that we have had a year that has been very challenging due to the worker shortages at our glasshouse.

“Our seasonal colleagues live on-site for the growing and harvesting periods and we have historically employed people from both the UK and countries across Europe.

“The restrictions to the pilot this year have meant we have struggled to recruit people.”

Mr Watson has expressed his belief that the UK government should address the fact that industries like cannabis cultivation are not currently included under the pilot scheme. He continued: “We would like a long-term commitment from the government that the labour demand for pharmaceutical growing is treated in the same way as growing for food.”

British Sugar is owned by Jazz Pharmaceuticals who bought UK medical cannabis company G.W. Pharmaceuticals in February this year. G.W. Pharmaceuticals became the first company to be granted a license for the production of medical cannabis over 20 years ago.

The medical cannabis producer since developed Epidyolex – a CBD-rich medical product that has been found to be effective at reducing seizures in rare forms of treatment-resistant epilepsy.

British Sugar produces cannabis at its 18-hectare growing site in Norfolk using heat and carbon dioxide that is generated by sugar production at its nearby factory.

Jazz Pharmaceuticals’ acquisition of G.W. Pharmaceuticals made it the only company currently working at a commercial scale to produce licensed drugs in the UK – the most highly regulated class of cannabis-based medical products.

Current policy regarding the UK’s import and export of medical cannabis products has been consistently questioned in recent years. Despite being one of the largest exporters of medical cannabis in the world, the vast majority of medical cannabis products for prescription here in the UK are imported from other countries.

A government taskforce, led by former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP, last week released a report recommending that the government move the licensing of medical cannabis from the Home Office to The Department of Health and Social Care to encourage growth in the sector post-Brexit.

Many have speculated that Brexit could play an important role in unlocking the potential of the UK’s medical cannabis sector. However, there have been a number of teething problems following the UK’s exit from the EU, including issues importing medical cannabis products from EU member states such as the Netherlands.

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