While CBD storms the global health and well-being market, there lies a frustrating paradox at the heart of the UK industry, a complete dependence on imports.
In its own domestic UK market the one million – and rising daily – CBD users are solely reliant on imports. Rebekah Shaman, chair of the British Hemp Association, says the UK needs to ease these restrictions in short shrift.
“Hemp growers are not able to use the leaves or the flowers, only the seeds and the stalk, and they are not allowed to extract CBD from these either. So we find ourselves in this ridiculous situation where an English CBD company has to grow cannabis in Portugal, or elsewhere in Europe, and import it into the UK for processing and sale,” she says
In order to grow cannabis, a UK farmer or business needs to secure a license from the Home Office. Guy Coxall, Chairman of HempTank and Compliance Director for the Cannabis Trades Association (CTA), says these are very hard to come by.
“The existing hemp license covers traditional industrial uses for seeds and fiber, all of the other parts of the plant are classed as controlled substances. It is therefore illegal to grow cannabis in the UK to extract CBD and as a result, everyone is having deal with imports from overseas at the moment,” says Mr. Coxall.
HempTank, the UK’s think tank for the hemp industry is putting together a White Paper to lobby the Government to change the regulations so that the whole plant can be used. This will reflect the World Health Organisation’s recommendations earlier this year to remove hemp completely from any drug scheduling.
Mr. Coxall believes as things stand, the UK is lagging behind in the development of a new ‘Green Industrial Revolution’. “With the market developing at such speed we see a massive opportunity to boost the economy and create thousands of jobs. Farmers could benefit enormously – for example, some estimates say a hectare of hemp for CBD production is worth over £100,000 and even the stalk alone is double the value of a hectare of good quality corn.”
HempTank is currently exploring the development of two new hemp processing plants in the South of England and a mobile extraction unit to support the homegrown hemp and CBD industries.
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U.K. Home Office
A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “Cannabis flower and leaf are controlled drugs in the U.K. so are illegal to possess, supply, produce or cultivate without a licence.”
Its regulations stipulate that a licence “may be issued for the cultivation of cannabis plants with a low tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content”. These licences enable the use of “non-controlled parts of the plant – seeds and fiber mature stalk only” and there needs to be a “defined commercial end use”.
It added: “Where any CBD products are controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and appropriate licences are not held, we expect the police to enforce the law.” For the cultivation of high-THC cannabis, a separate licence is required and since 2016 the Government has granted only 30 of these.
However, this is unlikely to provide a profitable route for most as they are “hard to come by, expensive and require very high crop security”, said Mr. Coxall.
The British Hemp Association
In 1533 King Henry Eighth mandated that for every 60 acres, farmers had to set aside one rood – about 1/4 acre – for hemp to make rope, sails and nets for the Navy. The 1930s US-inspired war-on-drugs brought cannabis production in the UK to a halt until the 1990s when the production was allowed under licence.
Nowadays, most UK hemp production goes in to the manufacture of horse bedding, mattresses, hempcrete, rendering and house construction, clothing and paper. The British Hemp Association, which was formed in July 2018, has over 20 members representing all players in the hemp arena including farmers, industrialists, producers, and consumers.
It is lobbying for an increase of the legal THC allowed in the hemp plant from 0.2% to at least 0.3% – as in the U.S. and Canada – but preferably 1%, like Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand. It also wants farmers to be permitted to use industrial hemp seeds currently not listed on the EU seeds list that are more suited for the British climate.
Last year’s U.S. Farm Bill removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, allowing for commercial cannabis production, as long as the plants contain no more than 0.3% THC.
Rebekah Shaman said: “We have very few hemp farmers in the UK as there is no money in it, so the CBD market could be a fantastic entry point for the UK and the reality is that we could kickstart a whole new industry. The new U.S. regulations mean we are about to see a huge development and we fear being left behind and swamped with exports.”
She continued by adding, “We should deregulate like North America; we are crippling ourselves. Hemp has potential in biofuels and sustainable paper, and we can create a thriving, environmentally-sustainable industry which can create jobs and give people hope.”
GW Pharmaceuticals (GW), the world’s leading cannabis exporter, was co-founded in 1998 by Dr Geoffrey Guy and Dr Brian Whittle, and is one of the few companies allowed to grow cannabis in the UK. GW manufactures cannabis-based medicines such as Epidiolex and Sativex. Epidiolex was recently licensed in the US to treat epilepsy.
Under license from the Home Office and under contract with GW, a second U.K. company British Sugar grows a CBD enriched variety of cannabis in Norfolk, England. This is used in GW’s drug Epidiolex. Hopefully soon, more companies will be able to access a Home Office license and the UK will eventually no longer be dependent on CBD imports.