What the Hemp? UK Regulation of Low-THC Cannabis

15th March 2021

Hemp has been an important part of human civilisation throughout history. Although we can’t be certain when we first began to utilise the crop, physical evidence of hemp cultivation dates back at least 10,000 years. This relationship continued uninterrupted for centuries – that is, until the far-reaching prohibition of cannabis in the 20th century.

Hemp is a variation of the Cannabis Sativa L. plant which contains little to none of the intoxicating cannabinoid, THC. The crop has been cultivated by humans in countless societies around the globe for industrial, nutritional, and medicinal uses for millennia. It is believed that the hemp plant may have up to 50,000 end uses including the production of textiles, bio-plastics, bio-fuels, and medicines.

To be classified as hemp, a cannabis plant must contain a limited amount of the psychoactive compound, THC. This limit can vary between jurisdictions – for example, in the UK and the EU, the limit is 0.2%. On the other hand, in the USA, the limit is 0.3% and some other jurisdictions – such as Switzerland – allow THC levels of up to 1%.

Despite its lack of THC, hemp’s association with high-inducing ‘marijuana’ had a huge impact on society’s view of the plant. When cannabis prohibition caught on and spread around the world in the early-mid 1900s, all varieties of the plant were grouped together. This has had a huge impact on the global hemp industry.

Current Hemp Regulation in the UK

Hemp, although a variety of cannabis, does not contain the compounds needed to induce the ‘high’ that is often associated with the plant. Despite this, cultivation of the crop is still restricted and the hep industry remains strictly regulated by the Home Office.

This means that growers must have a Home Office license to allow the cultivation of the crop. The price of licensing applications can vary from £580 for the initial license to £326 for renewal.

hemp cbd oil
CBD oil tincture and hemp leaf

The UK’s hemp industry has managed to survive in the face of cannabis prohibition, stigma, and strict regulation. Now, in what many refer to as the “new age of cannabis”, there are growing calls to reform the UK’s stance on hemp.

CBD to the Rescue?

While THC remains the most common and the most well-known cannabis compound, cannabidiol (CBD) is undeniably gaining in popularity. CBD is the second-most prevalent cannabinoid produced by the cannabis plant. The compound has descended upon the health and wellness world in recent years, thanks to it’s various medicinal and therapeutic potentials.

CBD can now be found in a huge array of products, from skincare, beauty, and supplements to chocolates, gummies, and drinks. The compound is also gaining increasing approval in the medical world as it has been seen to help with various conditions, including epilepsy, anxiety, and sleep problems.

Extraction of CBD

While hemp contains extremely small levels of THC, it often has an abundance of CBD. This cannabinoid is legal in the UK – as it is in many other countries around the world – and has the potential to provide a much-needed additional production option for hemp farmers. However, growers in the UK are not allowed to extract this valuable ingredient.

CBD is largely produced in the lowers and leaves of the hemp plant – the parts of the plant which, here in the UK, farmers are forced to destroy. UK Home Office licenses for ‘Industrial Hemp’ allow only for the utilisation of hemp “fibre and seeds”. This means that UK companies are forced to source their CBD from other countries.

What needs to change?

The CBD sector is only expected to get bigger in the coming years. In fact, recent predictions forecast that the global industry – worth an estimated $2.8 billion USD could continue to grow to $13.4 billion by 2028. Therefore, it is essential that UK hemp farmers are able to benefit from this growth.

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Hemp plant

Calls for reform to the UK hemp industry are increasingly beginning to gain the attention of the public. According to the British Hemp Alliance, there are three things that need to happen “in order for the UK hemp industry to fulfil its potential and hemp be recognised as an essential agricultural and environmentally friendly crop”:


While cultivation licenses and restrictions remain under the remit of the Home Office, traditional farmers continue to see hemp as an “alternative” crop. Handing over the responsibility of licensing to the Department of Environmental, Food & Rural Affairs, would encourage more farmers to embrace hemp.


The leaves and flowers are the most valuable parts of the hemp plant. Allowing hemp farmers to harvest and process these parts of the plant would allow them to benefit from the ever-growing CBD industry.


In Australia, Ecuador, Uruguay and Switzerland, hemp crops are permitted to contain up to 1% THC. The British Hemp Alliance argues that this allows for healthier plants that can produce higher-quality crops and flowers. In addition, 1% THC is still too little to have psychoactive effects if consumed.


Last year, Drug reform advocates Volteface also voiced their belief in a need for change in the UK hemp industry. Their campaign, Pleasant Lands, was launched with a view to working alongside policymakers and the government “to unlock the hemp opportunity for UK farmers and small businesses.”

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