Over the last few years, the UK has become one of the largest consumers of CBD products in the whole of Europe. This popularity has led to a booming – if for a long time, unregulated – industry featuring a huge variety of products from CBD oils and tinctures to cannabidiol-infused skincare, edibles, supplements, and much more! With this huge commercial opportunity, you would expect hemp farms to be popping up all over the country and CBD manufacturers to be bringing in the big bucks. Unfortunately, this is not the case.  

Instead, outdated regulations and laws mean that cultivators, manufacturers and brand owners are continuing to lose out on a huge market that appears to be going nowhere. In this article, we’re going to be taking a closer look at the hemp and medical cannabis regulations that are continuing to hold back the domestic industry. 

Cannabis Cultivation in the UK 

The UK has a long history of cannabis cultivation, dating back to medieval times when the crop was an important source of industrial material. If you have spent any significant amount of time researching hemp or cannabis in the UK, the chances are you will have come across the little anecdote about Henry VIII’s love of hemp: that the gruesome King ordered every farmer to dedicate a portion of their land to cultivation of the crop – he even accepted hemp as tax payments! This harmless popularity sustained for a few more hundreds of years – right up until the infamous prohibition era.  

Industrial Hemp and the CBD Industry 

For the last few decades, hemp has been widely kept under lock and key thanks to the introduction of a licensing system that not only dictates who can grow industrial hemp and where, but also what part of the plant may be utilised. Under these regulations, hemp plants cultivated in the UK must contain no more than 0.2% THC – that’s well below the amount needed to cause any kind of psychoactive or intoxicating effects. So, you think this would be enough to support a domestic supply of cannabidiol – the non-intoxicating hemp derivative more commonly known as ‘CBD’. But, of course, again you would be wrong. 

hemp cultivation

Despite the obvious financial benefits for hemp farmers, current UK law forbids them from harvesting the leaves and buds of their crops. In other words, UK farmers are doomed to destroy the most CBD-rich – and hence, most profitable – part of their crop.  

As the British Hemp Alliance explains: “Farmers are unable to harvest, extract, transport or process the leaf or the flower; it has to be destroyed on site. The flowers are the most profitable parts of the plant that contain the highest concentration of CBD (cannabidiol).” 

And it’s not only the farmers who are losing out. Such regulations represent a wasted opportunity to incentivise hemp cultivation – a move that could: 1) raise more funds from licenses to put in the government’s piggy bank; and 2) champion sustainable farming

Like many organisations operating within the hemp sector, the British Hemp Alliance is on a mission to scrap these restrictive regulations. Furthermore, the Association is also calling on the government to raise the THC limit in industrial hemp from 0.2% to 1%, and for licensing to transferred from the drugs and firearms department of the Home Office to the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs. 

So, if we can’t use our own supply of CBD, then where does the CBD in products sold in the UK actually come from? 

The huge number of CBD brands that have cropped up throughout the UK in recent years have to get their star ingredient from somewhere so, of course, they have no choice but to import their supply of CBD. In many cases, this comes from wholesalers who cultivate hemp for CBD extraction in Europe, however, some companies may source their CBD from as far away as the USA and even China. That brings us nicely to the question of import and export regulation… 

The Import and Export of Cannabis 

The UK, like most countries around the world, has a long history of banning cannabis – whether for recreational or medicinal purposes. In fact, the UK government only legalised medical cannabis in 2018 – that’s almost 20 years after Canada. You would probably think, then, that the export of medical cannabis was out of the question? Well… I think you know where this is going. The uncomfortable fact of the matter is that the UK has been one of the biggest exporters of medical cannabis for years, even while insisting that the plant has no medicinal value.  

On the bright side, the 2018 law change allowing for the medicinal use of cannabis products has allowed for domestic medical cannabis to be prescribed to UK patients. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t still rely on imports of medicinal cannabis products. This reliance triggered another law change in 2020 that allows wholesalers to hold reserve stocks of medical cannabis products in order to provide faster access to patients in need. Nonetheless, the government continues to face criticism and pleas from patients and advocacy campaigners to do more to improve patient access to medical cannabis. 

Medical Cannabis and GMP 

Good Manufacturing Practice, or GMP, is a major consideration for medical cannabis manufacturers. This refers to the standards applied to a variety of products from foods and cosmetics to medicines – including medical cannabis. All medicines sold in the UK must comply with GMP regulations. This refers to everything from the defined manufacturing process and critical manufacturing steps to the need for suitable premises, storage, and transportation of all products. All this is designed to ensure the consistency, safety, and quality of every product. You can find out more about medical cannabis and GMP compliance in our recent article: ‘What is GMP and What Does it Mean for the Cannabis Industry?’ 

Is GMP the same as Novel Foods Regulation? 

Novel Foods regulation is another term you have probably heard batted around a lot over the last few years. Like GMP, it is designed to ensure the safety and quality of a product, but it isn’t the same thing. The European Commission defines a novel food as “food that had not been consumed to a significant degree by humans in the EU before 15 May 1997, when the first Regulation on novel food came into force.” This definition includes a wide variety of products, such as newly developed foods or newly discovered extracts from existing foods; CBD falls into the latter category.  

The EU ruling that defines CBD as a Novel Food became the basis of tighter regulation on CBD products in the UK and across other member nations. As a result, CBD companies must now prove the exact contents of their products to ensure safety and compliance to these regulations. Prior to the introduction of Novel Food regulation on the CBD sector, brands were free to sell their products without official certification. Since the beginning of this year, however, brands must now complete a thorough application process for each of their CBD products before it can be sold on the UK market.  

The Association for the Cannabinoid Industry explains how, at the beginning of 2021, “FSA published a list of ingestible CBD products and manufacturers who would be permitted to sell validated products, pending full market authorisation.  

“However not everyone on the regulator’s register is guaranteed to make it that far and the first market approvals are not expected until mid-2023.” 

This regulation helps consumers to feel confident in buying products in a relatively new market. Nonetheless, it may be time for a closer look at the UK’s hemp regulation in general – particularly when it comes to the domestic supply of CBD.