With a CBD market that has exploded since legislation changed in 2018 and high street shops such as Boots and Selfridges stocking CBD products on their shelves, it would be easy to think that the laws surrounding the sale and production of CBD within this country would be straightforward, however this is far from the case.
Hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant that is grown specifically for industrial and medical use. It has a higher concentration of CBD than its psychoactive counterparts and a low concentration of the psychoactive chemical, THC. This means that whilst hemp plants may look in some ways similar to a normal cannabis plant, smoking it will not get you high.
The plant has been favoured for centuries for a number of its properties. In Mesopotamia, there is evidence of hemp string being used upto 5000 years ago, whilst in China the plant has been harvested for over a thousand years for a number of applications including; paper, medicines and fabrics.
Typically hemp grows fast and is a hardy, low maintenance crop. Hemp fibres are substantially stronger than cotton and are resilient to rot, making them a perfect fit for the naval industry. Whilst the discovery of hemp’s uses came a little later in Europe, during the 16th Century Henry VIII mandated that all farmers must sow a quarter acre of hemp for every 60 acres of land they owned. Whilst hemp was used at the time for a number of industrial and traditional medicinal purposes, the true benefits of hemp would not be unlocked until a much later date.
Today growing hemp in the UK is very different to a mandated scheme, with most CBD and hemp products being imported, due to costly licenses which have to be obtained from The Home Office, along with strict regulations surrounding the harvesting and production of the plant. The UK’s ability to produce hemp on the kind of scale it needs to fulfill our growing CBD market is being seriously hampered by outdated, nonsensical laws.
Cannabis, as a whole, was outlawed in the United Kingdom in 1928, as part of the growing Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920. Hemp unfortunately was given no special treatment, as its lack of psychoactivity was not proved at the time and so it was tarred with the same brush as ‘cannabis’., becoming illegal to grow and use in 1928.
Although CBD was isolated in 1940, highlighting further the importance of the CBD rich hemp flowers, it wasn’t until the same year that cannabinoid receptors were discovered in our bodies, in 1998, that hemp was actually made legal again within the UK. Whilst the isolation of CBD was a milestone for cannabis research, it wasn’t until the individual cannabinoids interaction with our own internal endocannabinoid system was further understood that we could clearly see the psychoactivity of THC and in comparison the lack of psychoactivity of CBD.
After this discovery, it would be easy to assume that the road to growing and producing products from a non psychoactive plant would be straightforward, however this has definitely not been the case in the UK. Currently hemp is still considered a controlled substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act and so a license is still required to grow the plant. The license application is lengthy and can also be expensive. Each farm must be vetted individually, depending on their size, location and the specific type of hemp seed they will be harvesting, proving that the plants growing will always have less than 0.2% THC.
Once the lengthy application process has been completed, strict regulations must still be followed, when it comes to the harvesting and production of the hemp plant. Whilst the farm has already proved that the plants grown will contain under 0.2% THC, regulations state that most of the plant must simply be discarded. Under UK laws only the fibres (stalks) and seeds of the hemp plant can be used in any manufacturing process, with the CBD rich flowers and leaves having to be thrown away. The flowers and leaves are the most commercially viable part of the plant (containing the highest levels of CBD) and so the regulations, which don’t apply to imported CBD, make it almost impossible to offer a commercially viable model of hemp growth and CBD production within the UK.
The true potential of the humble hemp plant is still being discovered today, with climate change becoming more and more apparent, hemp is now being looked to for solutions within medicine, construction and even petrochemicals. Hemp plastic is a non toxic bioplastic made from biodegradable hemp fibres, creating a viable solution to the ever growing plastic pollution problem. Hempcrete for example is a carbon negative building solution. Whilst it is not as strong as concrete, hempcrete (which is made through a mixing of lime and hemp shivs) is a natural, airtight insulation material, that is also fire and pest-resistant, whilst storing and releasing moisture. Hempcrete can be used for roof insulation, flooring and walls and actually locks away more atmospheric carbon for the lifetime of the building than was emitted during its construction, making it an extremely viable option for eco-friendly building in the future. Steve Barron of Margent Farm has recently highlighted the hypocrisy of the UK’s hemp production laws and has built a prototype home, largely from hemp, locking in 24 tonnes of atmospheric carbon during its construction.
There have been a number of campaigns aimed at changing our hemp production laws but so far none have been successful. Whilst uncertain, the future for hemp production in the UK could be bright. With a new campaign launched by Volteface, who are an advocacy organisation seeking to reduce the harm drugs pose to individuals and society, through evidence-based policy and reform. The campaign, which is called Pleasant Lands aims to take advantage of current public opinion, stating that recent YouGov polling shows 75% of correspondences supported policy reform and with a CBD industry that has been predicted to reach over $1bn in sales in 2021, it is clear that regulatory change is essential for the UK to sustainably produce its own hemp to meet this demand.