Hemp farmers lose their cool over post-Brexit laws

Patrick Gillett is on a mission to make the cultivation of industrial hemp so widespread in Britain the bureaucracy restricting use of the plant from the cannabis family becomes de facto obsolete.

The 37-year-old social entrepreneur has been frustrated, along with many other UK farmers and businesses, by the government’s failure to loosen regulation of a plant that has spawned one of the world’s fastest-growing markets for food and healthcare supplements.

Hemp, once best known for making rope, also contains non-controlled cannabinoids, which mimic the body’s endocannabinoid system regulating things such as mood and sleep, and which include cannabidiol (CBD). The UK value of CBD products designed to relieve ailments ranging from anxiety to arthritis has grown from next to nothing five years ago to £300-£400m today. It is expected to reach £1bn by 2025, according to industry estimates.

CBD products such as balms, creams, capsules and oils are sold in high street outlets, including Boots the chemist and the wholefood chain Holland & Barrett. They are promoted in the UK by sports stars including footballer David Beckham and heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua.

Yet because hemp is a strain of the cannabis plant, albeit one containing only tiny trace elements of the controlled component THC that makes users high, it is lumped in the same bracket as its psychoactive cousin marijuana and regulated under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.

Instead of seizing the opportunity provided by Brexit to diverge from tight EU rules on hemp, Boris Johnson’s government has imported them and is tying UK farmers up in more knots than Brussels, Gillett and others in the industry argue. In doing so the UK is delivering a competitive head start to European growers.

“We have the biggest market for CBD in Europe and yet all of the money is going abroad,” said Gillett, who has launched a campaign under the banner “overgrow the regime” to encourage Britons to grow hemp en masse.

Patrick Gillett’s ‘overthrow the regime’ to encourage the growing of hemp © Anna Gordon/FT

So far, only a tiny number of companies have been authorised to grow and exploit commercially the most lucrative parts of hemp — the flowers and leaves from which CBD is derived, meaning that tonnes of the latter are destroyed each harvest.

Most British hemp farmers are only permitted to harvest the stalks and seeds for specific commercial uses such as construction materials, textiles and cosmetics.

It’s only the biggest players who can navigate the regulatory obstacles they’ve created. Everyone else is fed up

As a result, most CBD brands in Britain are forced to import their product from places such as Romania and Slovakia.

“This is a huge missed opportunity. Not allowing UK farmers to utilise the most valuable part of the hemp plant makes no sense,” said Matt McNeill, founder of Kloris, one of the companies that supplies Boots with CBD products. “If the laws were changed we’d be able to have our entire supply chain in the UK,” he said.

Hempen, the not for profit agricultural co-operative co-founded by Gillett in Oxfordshire in 2015, learnt this at great cost at a time when there was still confusion around the laws on hemp and its enforcement. In 2019 the co-operative was forced to destroy its £200,000 organic crop when it informed the Home Office that it had been harvesting it for CBD.

Its industrial hemp licence has not been renewed and it is now sourcing seeds and stalks for a range of food and cosmetic products from other farmers in the UK and Switzerland. Its annual turnover has plummeted from a high of £320,000.

“It’s only the biggest players who can navigate the regulatory obstacles they’ve created. Everyone else is fed up,” said Gillett.

Hempen has been hit hard by the UK’s restrictive regulatory regime © Anna Gordon/FT

In order to grow and extract CBD commercially in Britain, farmers need a licence that permits them to grow any form of cannabis — including strains containing high levels of THC. Until recently, there was only one such company, GW pharmaceuticals, which is licensed to manufacture the drug Sativex for the relief of multiple sclerosis symptoms and Epidiolex for treating epilepsy, both derived from cannabis. GW was sold for $7.2bn to US group Jazz Pharmaceuticals in February.

Victoria Atkins, the minister in charge of drugs when Theresa May was prime minister, had to recuse herself from debates in parliament around cannabis because her husband, Paul Kenward, is managing director of British Sugar, the company authorised to grow the plant for GW.

Another company on the Channel Island of Jersey was granted a “high THC” licence earlier this year.

The exclusivity surrounding these licences has compounded the sense among smaller players that the rules are being stacked in favour of well-connected corporates.

“There is a lot of hypocrisy. It is one rule for us and another for them,” said Robert Jappie, a solicitor with law firm Ince, which specialises in the sector.

Advocates argue there is an environmental as well as economic case for changing the rules. Hemp is exceptionally efficient, according to scientists, at sequestering carbon and regenerating soil and can be used for biodegradable alternatives to plastics.

Excitement about the economic potential of hemp has also spread to some parts of government. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has funded research at York university into raising the amount of UK land used for industrial hemp from 800 to 80,000 hectares by 2030.

Meanwhile, the government’s task force on innovation, growth and regulatory reform, which science and innovation minister George Freeman was part of, noted this year that current Home Office rules were preventing UK hemp producers from accessing “a fast-growing, legal and well established consumer market”. It said the UK was losing out on a “£1bn medicines industry”, as a result.

The Home Office, however, remains rigidly opposed to opening up. It said it had “no plans to change the licensing process. Our robust but proportionate regime permits cannabis cultivation for lawful purposes, while protecting the public against their unlawful or unsafe use,” it said.

Industrial hemp plants being grown in Poland © Omar Marques/Getty Images

The government has, however, asked the independent advisory council on the misuse of drugs (ACMD) to provide advice on consumer cannabidiol products. This will include, according to people in the industry, guidance crucial to how the industry evolves on the amount of trace THC that should be permitted in CBD products.

Meanwhile, businesspeople fear Britain is losing a competitive edge.

Louise Motala, managing director of the Bridge Farm Group in Lincolnshire, which supplies horticultural products to Sainsbury’s and Tescos, said her company has invested millions in the glass house infrastructure to grow hemp, and had developed a patented new method for extracting CBD since winning a research and development licence for.

But BFG has failed so far to get permission to farm CBD commercially.

“I think the government is trying to develop the right pathway so when they do open the market it can be regulated safely and controlled,” Motala said. “The frustration is it’s incredibly slow.”

Too slow, said Gillett. “We have tried lobbying. But I would favour a civil disobedience approach now whilst talking to the authorities and urging them to be reasonable,” he said. “It’s in the public health interest, there is a strong business case, and potentially a huge tax base to draw from.”

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