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Hemp legislation and what it means for the CBD industry

hemp farm and cbd industry

The cultivation of hemp in the UK goes back centuries. It was once such an important crop that Henry VIII made it a legal requirement for farmers to grow hemp alongside their other crops. They were even allowed to pay their taxes with it!

Today, though, the legal landscape looks a lot different for hemp. In this article, we’ll take a look at the current UK hemp legislation and talk about what this means for the CBD industry and you, the CBD consumer. First, here’s a quick explainer on hemp and CBD.

Hemp and CBD

Hemp and marijuana both belong to the cannabis species. In fact, they’re essentially the same plant, but with slightly different chemical compositions. Marijuana has high levels of THC, the chemical compound that gets you high when you smoke it. Hemp, on the other hand, has very low levels of THC, far too little to cause psychoactive effects. 

THC is a cannabinoid, and so is CBD (AKA cannabidiol). It’s found in both hemp and marijuana plants, but hemp plants are used to make CBD products because of their low THC levels. 

By far the most lucrative use of the hemp plant, CBD has become wildly popular in the last few years thanks to its many reported wellness benefits. As of 2019, 11% of UK adults aged 25-49 had used a CBD product, with that number no doubt having grown since then. The CBD market is currently worth about £300m and is set to hit £1bn by 2025. 

In addition to CBD, hemp is used to manufacture an incredibly wide range of products, including clothing, paper, rope, fabric, paint, animal food, biofuel, biodegradable plastics, construction materials and oils. In agriculture, it’s used to decontaminate soil and improve its structure and nutrition, leading to healthier, more productive crops. Best of all, it’s highly sustainable, uses minimal water, requires no herbicides or pesticides, and is great for offsetting CO2

Given the sheer value of the CBD market and the many positive uses of hemp, you’d expect the government to be 100% behind its cultivation. However, the reality is quite different, not to mention confusing. 

Is it legal to grow hemp in the UK? 

Yes. It’s legal to grow hemp in the UK, but only under certain strict conditions. 

First, industrial hemp growers need to obtain a “controlled drugs domestic licence” from the Home Office. This costs £580 and usually covers three growing seasons, after which a renewal costs £326.

To get the licence, growers must have a valid Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check. They must also verify that the type of seed they intend to use is an approved strain that contains less than 0.2% THC. 

So once your licence is approved, you’re good to go, right? Not quite! You can use the seeds, stalks and fibres of the hemp plant, but the flowers and leaves must be destroyed on site. 

Once the flowers and leaves are separated from the plant, they become controlled substances, treated in the same way as recreational cannabis.  

Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, cannabis is a Class B controlled substance. That means that if you’re caught in possession of cannabis -- or hemp flowers or leaves -- you can face up to five years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both. Grow it, sell it or share it with others, and you could be looking at up to 14 years in prison, and unlimited fine, or both. 

Why is hemp treated like cannabis? 

It hasn’t always been this way. For centuries, both hemp and marijuana/cannabis were grown and used freely, for both recreational and medicinal purposes. Cannabis was often prescribed alongside drugs like morphine and cocaine, which may be where the trouble started.  

We now know that opioids and stimulants are powerful drugs with a huge potential for addiction and overdose. For that reason, drugs like cocaine are illegal, and drugs like morphine are used very sparingly, in controlled conditions, supervised by medical professionals. In the 19th century, though, they were only just realising the extent of the risks involved with these drugs.    

The US cracked down on recreational drug use in 1914, and the UK followed suit in 1928. Unfortunately, both governments lumped cannabis in with the harder drugs. US President Richard Nixon went on to ban even medicinal cannabis in the 60s, creating a huge stigma around hemp and marijuana plants on both sides of the pond. 

Our laws reflect that stigma to this day. Even though the flowers and leaves of the hemp plant can’t get you high, they’re still treated the same as marijuana. It’s been pointed out that because hemp flowers and cannabis are identical, it would be impossible for police to distinguish between the two and enforce the law. Some say that’s an argument for decriminalising cannabis, rather than criminalising hemp flower, but for now, both remain the same in the eyes of the law. 

So what does this mean for CBD? 

The law has been updated slightly to reflect the fact that CBD is not the same as marijuana/cannabis. Now, it’s legal to sell CBD products in the UK as long as they meet the following criteria:

  • They’re made from specific strains of approved hemp containing no more that 0.2% of THC. 
  • The final product contains less than 1mg of THC per container. 

However, most of the CBD in the hemp plant is found in the leaves and flowers – the very parts that UK hemp farmers have to destroy.   

CBD product manufacturers, who might otherwise buy hemp from those UK farmers, are forced to source their CBD from abroad. That makes CBD oils and other products more expensive for the UK customer, and it diverts money out of the UK economy (remember how valuable that CBD market is?!). 

It also means that growing hemp is not financially viable for many UK farmers at all, as the most lucrative part of the plant is destroyed. And if they’re not growing hemp, we as a country can’t benefit from the many other uses of this important and versatile crop. 

Calls for reform 

Unsurprisingly, a huge movement has sprung up over the past few years calling for these antiquated laws to be updated. One of the biggest voices is Volteface, a group advocating for education and legislative reform around CBD and cannabis. Their Pleasant Lands campaign aims to change hemp legislation and stop UK farmers from being unfairly locked out of the booming CBD industry. 

The general public is overwhelmingly in support of reform, too, with 75% of Brits telling YouGov that they believe farmers should be able to process their hemp for the CBD industry. We look forward to the day we can offer you quality, homegrown CBD products here at CBD Shopy, but reform is still some way away yet, especially in light of the ongoing pandemic.

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