The pros and cons of the hemp crop are to be debated by legal experts, investors, farmers and researchers at an online event organised by Cambridge networking organisation Agri-TechE.
Cannabis sativa L. is a multi-purpose plant whose species include hemp and marijuana. Marijuana and its key active ingredient THC – Tetra-Hydro-Cannabinol, a psychotropic substance – are banned in the UK (though legal in countries including Canada, Portugal, some parts of the US, and the Netherlands). Hemp, which has almost zero – 0.3 per cent – THC content, has found a huge market via Cannabidiol (CBD) products, which are legal in the UK. CBD products are widely used as a means to relieve pain, lower inflammation and decrease anxiety without psychoactive effects.
Currently, all CBD oil sold in the UK is imported because, although farmers can grow industrial hemp for its fibres, the leaves and flowers, which contain the lucrative CBD oil, must be destroyed. UK consumers spent £300m on CBD products in 2010 and that figure is rising, and it is this potential (and lucrative) market which will be under consideration at the Agri-TechE event on May 12. Industrial hemp grown for fibres also has the potential to replace imports of CBD products, and farmers are beginning to ask questions about possible involvement. Why are the many benefits and uses for hemp being overlooked by UK regulators?
Robert Jappie, partner at Ince and a well-respected legal expert specialising in life science and cannabidoid regulation, will be speaking at the event, titled ‘From Farmer to Pharma – and Beyond – with Medicinal Cannabis and Industrial Hemp’.
“I’d like to see this UK restriction on the extraction of CBD be removed,” he said. “Why must we import CBD from overseas when we are perfectly capable of doing the extraction here?
“Hemp is a really lucrative crop and, by not being able to utilise the entirety of the plant, British farmers are being placed at a disadvantage compared to our EU and US neighbours. In most EU countries it is lawful to extract CBD from the whole hemp plant.”
Norfolk farm manager John Barrett will be advocating a change to the law on which parts of the plant can be harvested for his talk at the virtual event. John, a director of Sentry Farms, recently began cultivating Cannabis sativa for hemp fibres.
He said: “Hemp is a crop with a great future – in a market that needs developing.”
Having begun with a 20-hectare plot, he plans to plant a further 200 hectares next year.
“We have been looking for an alternative in order to widen our rotation away from traditional crops,” John added. “I see hemp as a light land crop; however, we are planning on trying some on heavier soils this year. It has great rooting properties which means it has resilience, but it does not like compaction.”
The fibres of hemp have long been used for ropes and materials, and now this versatile crop is being exploited for construction materials, animal feed, biofuel and, more recently, as a plant-based alternative plastic. It fits well within a rotation and its cultivation in the UK is increasing, but there’s a hurdle – it requires a hemp cultivation licence, which involves a three-stage process with the Drugs and Firearms Licensing Unit at the Home Office. In over two decades only two full commercial licenses have been awarded to UK growers.
A full commercial licence would allow cultivators in the UK to grow and distribute the entirety of the plant, be that for medical or pharmaceutical use. Robert is arguing that there should be a sea change in the way the industry is regulated.
“The first licensee was GW Pharmaceuticals, who obtained their licences around 20 years ago, and the UK is now one of the biggest exporters of medical cannabis because of this company. To give some idea of the revenue available here, GW Pharmaceuticals just got bought by an American company for $7.2bn.”
A breakthrough in this legislative maze was an announcement by the health services of the European Commission in December that CBD can be qualified as a food and not as a narcotic, as previously stated.
The announcement has been welcomed by Lorenza Romanese, managing director of the European Industrial Hemp Association, who is also speaking at the upcoming Agri-TechE conference. She says: “In practical terms, this means that hemp operators will finally be able to market their products in a clear legal framework.
“At the moment, the legal uncertainty is preventing the European hemp sector from developing and exploiting the potential benefits of the plant, which is why clear and stable regulation is needed. It will boost investments in R&D and enable the creation of new jobs and market opportunities.”
Robert Jappie agrees that more clarity in regulation is needed.
“The ideal situation in the UK would be a separate department, perhaps within DEFRA, managing cannabis cultivation for CBD and hemp,” he says.