British farmers and small businesses have described current legislation that prohibits them from cultivating CBD oil from cannabis plants – while it remains legal to import it from abroad – as “unfair”, “ridiculous” and “insane”.
It comes as a second report in just two weeks, backed by farmers, industry bodies and MPs, has called for a liberalisation of “nonsensical” restrictions around the production of CBD in the UK.
CBD, also known as cannabidiol, is derived from the leaves and flowers of the cannabis plant. But unlike THC – the property that makes cannabis users high – CBD has no psychoactive effect.
It is legal in the UK and is used in a wide variety of wellness products freely available to buy at high street shops such as Boots and Holland & Barrett.
But despite this, the plant itself remains a restricted crop under the Misuse of Drugs Act and growing it requires a government-issued licence.
Under the terms of the most commonly issued “low THC industrial hemp licence” farmers are only allowed to harvest the stems and seeds of the hemp plant (a type of cannabis).
While this can be used to make a variety of products such as textiles and building materials, the most valuable part of the plant, the leaves and flowers, must be destroyed.
This means that although CBD is a legal product in the UK and it is legally imported from abroad, most British farmers cannot legally produce it.
Steve Barrons owns a 53-acre hemp farm in Cambridgeshire – and has videos of the fires with which he had to destroy the leaves of his crop.
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He told me it “feels ridiculous”, adding: “Everyone I tell it to thinks it just sounds crazy and can’t be true.”
Mr Barrons added: “Every other plant in this country, you can get all the value from it. It’s so much work growing and being a farmer anyway, to then be restricted and told ‘not that bit, leave that bit alone,’ but you can import it from the EU, Switzerland, the US, wherever you like, it’s crazy really.”
In current market terms, it means he burns about 90% of his potential revenue, he said.
In a 15-acre field he might expect to make around £12,000 profit from hemp products. But if he was allowed to cultivate CBD it would rise to nearly £100,000.
The UK CBD market is big business and growing rapidly. Products containing it are taken by people with a variety of ailments from chronic pain to anxiety and depression.
The market has a current estimated value of £300m and is projected to reach £1bn by 2025.
There has been an explosion of British entrepreneurs developing and selling CBD products.
One of them, Joe Oliver, founded LND CBD in 2018 after CBD oil helped his father when he was seriously ill.
In addition to oils and balms, the company has run CBD yoga and massage as well as developing edible products such as CBD brownies, CBD gummy sweets, and even CBD prosecco.
But he has to import his key ingredient from America, a situation he describes as “insane”.
“I wish it would come from a UK supplier,” he said, adding that it would “lower the CO2 emissions, (with) the distance, the cost, including paperwork etc”. It would also “bring jobs to the UK”, and enable standards to be set here, he said.
Ensuring those quality standards will be very important. Because the industry has developed so rapidly, there has been some evidence of poor quality and misleadingly-labelled products in the CBD market.
Experts say that ensuring bad practice is not legalised may be one of the reasons for a delay.
Many farmers argue that professionalising the industry is the answer.
“There’s a lot of regulatory changes that need to happen in order to create a safe, legal, and transparent supply chain for CBD in the UK,” said Louise Motala, managing director of Bridge Farm.
Her multi-million pound state of the art facility in Lincolnshire currently supplies house plants and herbs to UK supermarkets. It has the advanced technology to extract CBD from cannabis, but isn’t currently allowed to grow it for commercial purposes.
“For us, it’s an opportunity to supply the same rigour that we apply to our core business and all the principles of high quality production and complete traceability and transparency in the supply chain. And bring that to growing CBD supply chain production.”
Experts also stress that recent regulation will resolve many of the historic problems.
“Generally the CBD industry has been highly unregulated for a number of years,” explained Robert Jappie, a regulatory lawyer and one of the authors of the Pleasant Lands report.
“That’s now changed. Novel Food Regulations have been introduced, (and) there’s now a clear route to compliance for UK CBD companies.”
The report stresses the move would help to demonstrate legislative sovereignty after leaving the EU and could open up Britain to being a medical cannabis and CBD leader in Europe.