Understanding the UK’s hemp ‘grey area’

28th December 2021

Despite the booming CBD industry in the UK, hemp farmers are unable to take advantage of the product they grow. While the fledgling CBD sector has now spread its wings, there remains significant confusion around the official guidelines of hemp cultivation, and the legality of hemp flowers and leaves in the UK.

What are the rules of Hemp cultivation?

Although farmers in the UK can be granted a Home Office license for the cultivation of industrial hemp (low-THC cannabis), they are only permitted to harvest part of the plant. The seeds and stems, which have much lower concentrations of both CBD and almost no THC are allowed to be utilised. However, the leaves and flowers which contain higher concentrations of cannabinoids, are not.

The Home Office states that hemp preparations will come under the general legal status of cannabis unless it contains the mature stalk, fibre, or seeds of the plant. These guidelines have come under fire for being unclear.

Nevertheless, the bottom line is that once the flowers and leaves have been separated from the rest of the plant, they will be treated in the same way as any high-THC cannabis. Current legislation requires the controlled parts of the plants to be either retted (separated from the fibre) at the licensed location, or “otherwise lawfully disposed of”.

The wording of this in the Home Office Factsheet for Industrial Hemp licensing is:

“This policy is only applicable where non-controlled parts of the plant are used and does not allow for use of ‘green’ material- i.e. the leaves and flowers as these are controlled parts of the plant.”

In July 2019, the largest hemp farm in the UK was denied a license renewal for their operation, and ordered to destroy their crop. The Home Office refused to renew the farm’s license following confusion over the CBD-hemp guidelines.

Further confusion comes from widely spread misinformation that products are legal as long as they contain less than 0.2%. In fact, the correct limit is 1mg of THC per container.

So, to sum up…

  • Industrial hemp is legal in the UK with the correct license. However, farmers can only cultivate the stems and seeds.
  • The leaves and flowers fall under the category of cannabis without exemption, and as such are a controlled substance.
  • Processed leaves and stems are legal in the UK, but producers are prohibited from processing them.

So where do CBD products in the UK come from?

In order to produce CBD products in the UK, companies have to import processed hemp materials, or CBD extracts, from elsewhere (usually the EU). The country with the largest industrial hemp industry in France, with 14,500 hectares. In comparison, the UK only has around 850 hectares.

However, these rules are not always obeyed. You only have to search for hemp flowers on the internet to find a huge selection of buds available in the UK. Given the cryptic nature of the current laws, it is possible that this is simply the result of a misunderstanding. Having said this, it is important to be aware of the legal status of what you are buying.

These confusing guidelines have, undeniably, put a limit on the UK hemp industry. The CMC says that the regulations make Hemp farming financially unviable. The British Hemp Association back this claim, and lobby for hemp farmers to be permitted to utilise the whole plant.

Hemp farmers who wish to cultivate the plants for CBD, also want the THC limit to be raised to at least 0.3%. In Switzerland, the limit for legal hemp is 1% THC.

A recent report by the government’s Taskforce for Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) this year highlighted that dichotomy that, despite the UK seeing a fast-growing, legal consumer market for “medicinal CBD for a range of pain and neurological conditions”, current Home Office regulation makes it impossible for these products to be produced in the UK.

Among the recommendations made by the authors of the report, it is suggested that the government should “move the licensing regime for cannabinoid pharmaceutical research and CBD over-the-counter medicines from the Home Office to the DHSC/MHRA, and “create a regulatory pathway for approving these products using an evidence-based assessment of their medicinal effects.”

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