Is CBD legal in the UK? What about growing hemp?

There is a lot of confusion and even more misinformation out there about CBD in the UK. Most people are still unsure if CBD is legal or not in the UK. Unless you are going straight to the legal text it is tricky to find a trustworthy source of information due to the marketing noise around the topic.

What makes things more complicated is the UK’s soft stance on enforcement. Quite a few products sold online are breaking the law. But where there is no enforcement of such law it is almost as if it doesn’t exist.

By the way, I am no lawyer and below are my own interpretations of the legal landscape for CBD in the UK. While I’ve made every effort to ensure the accuracy of this article it is not intended to provide legal advice.

The UK ranks drugs in three classes according to severity: Class A (most severe), Class B, Class C (least severe) and temporary class drugs. It controls those drugs with the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) 1971 intending to prevent the use of non-medical consumption of certain drugs.

Cannabis shifted in 2004 from Class B to Class C but moved back to Class B in 2009 where it still ranks today. It means that cannabis is a controlled substance in the UK under Schedule 2 of the MDA, as is THC.

In contrast, CBD is not mentioned in any of the schedules. Thus, it is, by itself, not a controlled drug.

Drawing of a scale and the word legal on a table with a cup of coffee and a male hand with a pencil

UK legislation for growing hemp

One of the main questions around CBD and hemp is: “Is it legal to grow hemp in the UK?” The short answer is, yes, but … The biggest confusion arises with the 0.2% THC level. It appears on a few websites as the legal threshold of CBD products. Unfortunately, this is not true in a legal context.

The 0.2% THC level doesn’t have anything to do with THC content in CBD oils or other CBD products. According to the UK’s Home Office published Drug Licensing Fact Sheet the 0.2% THC relates to hemp cultivation only.

If you decide or are thinking about growing hemp in the UK you would have to apply for a “hemp growing license” from the UK government first. But, gaining and renewing a licence is problematic, as one UK hemp grower found out this year.

For a cannabis plant to qualify as hemp, it needs to contain no more than 0.2% of THC. Besides, such hemp growing license is only issued to growers with the intention to produce hemp fibre and hemp seeds. The fibre is sold to the industry for further processing. Whereas the seeds are either consumed raw or pressed into oil.

What happens to the rest of the plant?

There is no mentioning of CBD or hemp leaves and flowers in the context of growing hemp in the UK in that Drug Licensing Fact Sheet. So what happens to the rest of the hemp plant? Are you allowed to use the leaves and the flowers to extract CBD?

Looking at another document, the Industrial Hemp Licensing Fact Sheet, the answer is a resounding “No”. This fact sheet explains that the license is only applicable to non-controlled parts of the plant and “and does not allow for use of ‘green’ material- i.e. the leaves and flowers as these are controlled parts of the plant.”.

Growing hemp for personal use?

If you are thinking of growing hemp in your back garden for personal use I would suggest you reconsider. A hemp growing license in the UK is only issued to registered companies.

When applying for a license you will need to provide your company registration details. You also need to outline where and what type of hemp you’d like to grow.

Due to the regulation imposed by the UK government, it is almost impossible to grow hemp in your back garden for personal use. Only with a commercial interest in mind can you sustain such regulation.

How does the UK define cannabis?

First, we need to establish how the UK defines cannabis in the legal context. The MDA 1971 Section 37 (1) defines Cannabis as follows:

“cannabis” (except in the expression “cannabis resin”) means any plant of the genus Cannabis or any part of any such plant (by whatever name designated) except that it does not include cannabis resin or any of the following products after separation from the rest of the plant, namely

(a)mature stalk of any such plant,

(b)fibre produced from mature stalk of any such plant, and

(c)seed of any such plant;

Hence, by the UK’s definition, hemp leaves, buds and flowers are considered to be cannabis. Which also means they are a controlled Class B drug in the UK.

Those parts of the hemp plant which are not used for industrial purpose, i.e. fibre or hemp seeds, need to be lawfully disposed of.

Cannabis waste disposal is another growing problem. Countries who legalised hemp and marijuana farming only recently, are facing mounting pressures. This holds especially true if the country only permits a low THC level and (or) only certain parts of plants for harvesting.

Several hemp plants in a field

But, I can buy that online …

“How come companies are processing or selling hemp leaves, flowers and buds here in the UK?” I hear you asking. Let’s just say not everybody sticks to the rules and some people are misinterpreting the law.

If you google for “hemp flowers” or “CBD flowers” you will find the odd shop selling those products, but outside the legal framework. Even if these products do not contain any THC, it is illegal to sell and buy them in the UK.

In the eyes of the law, treatment would be the same as somebody possessing any other controlled drug, like THC rich marijuana. This also means you can be prosecuted for that.

By now you should have realised that there is no hemp farming for CBD in the UK. Hemp farmers in the UK are only allowed to use their hemp to extract fibre and seeds but nothing else. The rest of the plant needs to be destroyed.

Importing hemp into the UK

Manufacturers of CBD products in the UK have to import hemp materials or CBD extracts from elsewhere. Some import from the USA, some from Europe. France is Europe’s largest hemp producer. You will find most of the CBD ingredients get imported from there.

If you are thinking of importing hemp into the UK I suggest you contact a law firm for advice. It is a tricky topic to understand with lots of references to different legislation pieces.

If you’d like to import hemp from a third country (outside the EU) you will definitely need a license.

According to the hemp (third country import) regulations you are allowed to import “true hemp” from outside the EU which is defined as “harvested plant material of the species Cannabis sativa L … whether or not the leaves and seeds have been removed”. This is provided you’ve been granted a license to import.

I couldn’t find any references regarding a license for importing hemp into the UK from another EU member state. But, given Brexit, this is might change at some point in the future.

Back to the THC content

If 0.2% is not the correct legal threshold for THC in CBD products, what is? To find out we need to refer to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations (MDR) 2001. It also forms part of the misuse of drugs legislation in the UK.

For any CBD product containing THC to be legal, it needs to be an “exempt product” according to MDR 2001 Regulation 2. It defines an “exempt product” as follows:

“exempt product” means a preparation or other product consisting of one or more component parts, any of which contains a controlled drug, where

(a) the preparation or other product is not designed for administration of the controlled drug to a human being or animal;

(b) the controlled drug in any component part is packaged in such a form, or in combination with other active or inert substances in such a manner, that it cannot be recovered by readily applicable means or in a yield which constitutes a risk to health; and

(c) no one component part of the product or preparation contains more than one milligram of the controlled drug or one microgram in the case of lysergide or any other N-alkyl derivative of lysergamide;

So what does that mean?

That means that any bottle of CBD oil or pack of CBD gummies is not allowed to exceed one milligram of THC as it is a controlled drug.

There might be an argument to be had if the MDR refers to a pack of CBD gummies as a whole or a CBD gummy by itself. I couldn’t find a definition of “product” or “preparation” in the MDR 2001. As you can see, things start to get a bit murkier.

This could mean if you’re buying a Full Spectrum CBD product with 0.2% THC in it, you are in possession of a controlled drug. Thus you can be prosecuted the same way as somebody who is in possession of a few grams of marijuana.

That piece of legislation brings us to a second problem though: detecting one milligram of THC needs sophisticated lab tech. No roadside police officer or basic lab will be able to do that.

That is also the reason why Medic Pro, a UK consultancy to the industry, recommends “No THC (or 0.01% limit detection)” to their clients.

Medicinal use of CBD

Cannabis can be used for medicinal purposes since November 2018 in the UK. Specialist doctors can prescribe cannabis-derived medicinal products to patients with special needs. And this without breaching the law.

Because it can only be prescribed in limited circumstances, your local GP is unlikely to prescribe you medicinal cannabis, like Sativex. Sativex is a mouth spray and contains THC and CBD in equal proportions.

It means there will be no short term change in the medicinal cannabis scene in the UK. Long term, it might change people’s attitude towards cannabis-derived medicine though.

“There is now no denying the medicinal value of CBD and THC – not even by the British government, …” writes Mike Power, a freelance journalist. Critics say the change in November 2018 has not gone far enough as it is still difficult for people with MS to get access to those products.

Enforcement

Part of the reason why products like CBD flowers are still sold at UK online retailers is the UK’s soft stance on enforcement. We are in a period of transition where it is unlikely that police is enforcing the law on low THC products.

Handcuffs on wooden floor

The classification of CBD as a novel food in February 2019 in the UK didn’t help either. The status of CBD changed in January 2019 in the EU Food Catalogue. The UK Food Standard Agency (FSA) subsequently changed CBD’s status in the UK as well. This new status of CBD also demands new compliance.

Within the law, selling of Novel foods is only allowed on the open market with the authorisation of the European Food Safety Authority. In basic terms, companies need a licence to sell CBD products. Even though the FSA agreed to postpone enforcement of these rules this can’t continue forever.

Furthermore, it puts the onus of enforcement onto the FSA and not the police. This might be problematic given the size of the CBD market in the UK. Enforcement efforts on such a scale are likely to be expensive and not justifiable compared to the FSA’s other more important issues.

Given the benefits of CBD and other cannabinoids, a question arises on what we as a society want to be enforced and what we don’t want to be enforced.

The real question, however, is not whether to introduce further regulation into the CBD industry. It is how can we do it in such a way that it is both proportionate and enforceable.

What is your take on the current legal situation of CBD and THC in the UK? Let me know in the comment section below. If you want regular updates don’t forget to sign up to my blog.

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