Although in the UK the CBD industry is growing rapidly, there has been a lot of confusion around the rules and regulations of hemp cultivation and the legality of hemp flowers and leaves.
Industrial Hemp is a strain of the Cannabis Sativa plant and hemp buds are the flowers of the hemp plant, which hold higher amounts of cannabinoids compared to the rest of the flora.1 The laws surrounding hemp can be a little confusing if you are new to the world of Hemp and CBD. Perception of hemp has changed dramatically since the Tudors, when King Henry VIII established a law stating farmers must grow hemp due to its incredible nutritional value. Today, hemp has become too closely associated with marijuana, and it is this confusion that has led to its illegality, making hemp legal to grow in the UK only under very strict conditions and regulations.
Cannabis is the umbrella term for both hemp and marijuana and although some may find it difficult to tell the difference between the two, there are a variety of key things to look for; For example, hemp has skinny leaves and very few branches or leaves grow below the top part of the plant. Comparatively, marijuana tends to have broader leaves, a tight bud and can look like a nugget with small hairs. Hemp often grows to be a skinny and tall plant, whereas marijuana often looks short and fat.
Hemp bushes are usually grown in close proximity to each other and it is able to grow in a large variety of climates.2 In contrast to this, marijuana has to be grown in a warm and humid environment for it to be able to grow properly. It is also important that hemp and marijuana don’t grow together because if they do, the pollen from the hemp will dilute the marijuana’s psychoactivity.
Hemp is a form of the cannabis plant that, unlike marijuana, can be used in a variety of ways. It is known to have 25,000 possible uses, ranging from beauty products and dietary supplements to clothes, food and even construction materials3. It is only recently that people have started to smoke it, be it through “buds” that look like marijuana or in the form of pre-rolled cigarettes. Although smoking hemp bud won’t give the user a high in the same way marijuana does, the cannabinoids contained within the plant have been found to enhance wellbeing.
In the UK, farmers have to apply for a license from the Home Office that allows them to farm Industrial Hemp4 (also known as low-THC Cannabis). Each license costs £580 (and renewals cost £326), and as part of the application process, the individual must undergo a Disclosure and Baring Service check to ensure that they are eligible for a license. Once approved, a compliance visit may also be imposed and the Home Office may place restrictions on where the crop can be planted.
Even if a license has been granted by the Home Office, growers are only permitted to harvest part of the plant. The leaves and flowers have a higher concentration of cannabinoids so it is illegal for them to be cultivated. However, the seeds and stems have a much lower concentration of CBD and practically no Tetrahydrocannabinol (or ‘THC’ – the psychoactive compound in marijuana) and are allowed to be cultivated.5
To explain this further, hemp is only allowed to be grown in the country for the creation of non-controlled hemp products that are made from the seeds and fibre.
For hemp to be considered legal it must remain below the maximum level of THC, which is 0.2%. This ensures that those who use it are unable to feel any psychoactive effects at all. If people are caught harvesting hemp without the proper license the law will regard them in the same way as if they were growing products with high amounts of THC.
In 2019, two hemp farmers told The Guardian that they were devastated when they were forced to destroy 40 acres of their crop.
Patrick Gillett and Ali Silk said the Home Office told them they were no longer allowed to harvest their crop for cannabis oil, or CBD. They told the publication they were confused as to why they received the order and believed it to be an unjust decision made by the Home Office. Since the order, they have launched a national campaign to have the policy reversed.
“For three years we operated openly and always kept the Home Office informed over what we were doing,” Mr Gillett told The Guardian. “It was devastating to have to rip the entire crop up just because the Home Office changed its guidelines. In fact, one of their guidelines is that any cannabis oil extracted from the hemp plant only contains 0.2% of THC [tetrahydrocannabinol, the substance that produces a psychoactive high], which we also stuck by and indeed were upfront with the Home Office. We kept them informed every step of the way when we started this business in 2015.”
Ms Silk estimated that their company lost approximately £200,000 as a result of the destroyed harvest. Although they had held a hemp grower’s licence it is believed that their application to renew the licence had recently been rejected by the Home Office.6
Although the CBD industry is growing in the UK, the hemp industry has remained minuscule. This has led to people sourcing CBD from Europe as the laws surrounding the production of hemp are less strict.
A YouGov survey conducted in 2019 shows that three-quarters of CBD users living in the UK believe the laws and restrictions hemp farmers have to follow should be lifted. Internationally the legalisation of cannabis has proven to be a very lucrative industry, which is one the UK is missing out on. Currently, only the medical use of cannabis is allowed but only very few people have access to this.
“The scale of opportunity for hemp’s numerous industrial applications is considerable and global. [There are] major societal and economic benefits possible for the UK, ” the British Hemp Alliance (formerly the British Hemp Association) said. “Farmers are unable to harvest, extract, transport or process the leaf or the flower; it has to be destroyed on-site. The flowers are the most profitable parts of the plant that contain the highest concentration of CBD (cannabidiol). At present all CBD extracts used in the UK are imported from Europe, China, Canada and the USA, where it is legal to harvest the hemp flower.” 7
The association has said that increasing the legal dose of THC from 0.2% to 1%, the same as Australia, Ecuador, Uruguay and Switzerland, would be beneficial. This would still have no psychoactive effect but the plant would be healthier and will be able to produce better crops and flowers.8
The British Hemp Alliance has said that a thriving hemp industry will provide the UK with a variety of agricultural and environmental benefits stating “It can be used for a range of environmentally friendly and carbon-negative products, while actively contributing to mitigating climate change. A thriving domestic hemp industry can kickstart a new green industrial revolution, boost local economies, and help to seed a brighter future in a post-Brexit landscape. 9
The Centre for Medicinal Cannabis (CMC) is another organisation that has said the current hemp farming rules need to be changed. In their report ‘CBD in the UK’ they expressed concern over the viability of the industry in the UK if the restrictions continue, stating “The hemp industry is not financially viable in the UK long-term unless it can compete on a level playing field with other hemp producers”.10
Perception of hemp has changed dramatically since the Tudors, when King Henry VIII established a law stating farmers must grow hemp due to its incredible nutritional value. Today, hemp has become too closely associated with marijuana, and it is this confusion that has led to its illegality, making hemp legal to grow in the UK only under very strict conditions and regulations.
However, despite the issues with hemp flowers and leaves being grown and utilised in the UK, CBD is not a restricted substance in the UK as long as the THC levels in the product are undetectable (less than 0.05%). It is for this reason that CBD Oil products that meet the strict UK guidelines are legal for sale (if you’d like to read more about why CBD Oil is legal, you can here).
All Hempura products are manufactured using top-grade industrial hemp imported from Eastern Europe into the UK – hemp that is tested comprehensively for quality and regulation purposes before it is brought into the UK for precision extraction. All of the farms we use are carefully selected, regulated and compliant EU growers and the plants are organically grown and therefore herbicide, pesticide, fungicide and GMO-free, so even though the hemp used in the manufacture of our CBD products aren’t sourced in the UK at the moment due to strict legislation, we can guarantee the highest quality ingredients are used in the production of Hempura CBD products.