There’s a long history of growing hemp in the UK. From Celts that taught women to sew and weave the fibre as early as 373 BC, to its abundance in the Elizabethan era when naval ships relied on hemp sails, rigging ropes and sacks, the crop is a common thread running throughout the history books.

By the twentieth century it had been marginalised, with its many functional uses inextricably tangled up with concerns around the psychoactive parts of the plant. By 1928, hemp was outlawed.

A densely packed hemp field with a forest in the background. It was illegal to grow hemp in the UK from 1928 to 1993, but advocates say strict regulations still stand in the way of a successful hemp industry.

It was illegal to grow hemp in the UK from 1928 to 1993, but advocates say strict regulations still stand in the way of a successful hemp industry.

That ban lasted no less than 65 years with permission to grow industrial hemp only reinstated as a legal activity for license holders in 1993. And crucially, according to members of the newly formed British Hemp Association (BHA), there remain a number of restrictions in place that hamper the huge opportunity for a thriving hemp sector in the country.

HOW MUCH INTEREST IS THERE IN HEMP IN THE UK?

Only launched this year the formation of the BHA coincides with the crop “gaining a lot more traction” in the UK and a growing number of farmers keen to get involved, said one of its directors Rob Kinghan.

A number of factors lie behind this surge in interest, he explained. Not least the rapid growth of the cannabinoid industry in the health and supplement market which has “injected a huge amount of interest back in the industry.” High street retailers, such as health food chain Holland and Barrett, are actively increasing the number of CBD products they stock, while brands such as Coca Cola consider CBD soft drinks and established restaurants market CBD menus.

Added to that is the recent decision by the UK government to legalise ‘cannabis-derived medicinal products’ where prescribed by a registered doctor. Shortly before the legislation was passed a national survey found that 43 percent of people supported the legalisation of all derivatives of the plant, including psychoactive cannabis.

A hand holding a hemp leaf. Prejudices against hemp and all forms of cannabis are beginning to fade in the UK, with 43 percent supporting total legalization of psychoactive cannabis ("marijuana") in a recent survey.

Prejudices against hemp and all forms of cannabis are beginning to fade in the UK, with 43 percent supporting total legalization of psychoactive cannabis (“marijuana”) in a recent survey.

All which is significant — not because growing the arable crop requires any associations with the psychoactive elements of the plant — but because it reflects a growing education and awareness among the UK public toward hemp as a whole, and therefore a removal of the prejudices that led to its criminalisation in the first place.

In short, there is “a general awakening of the benefits of hemp as an agricultural crop,” said Kinghan and, as a result, those interested in growing industrial hemp have grown considerably, with some talk of the UK being a prime location for extraction and processing sites. Only regulation stands in the way of a thriving industry, hemp advocates said.

WHAT’S IT LIKE TO GROW HEMP IN THE UK?

The BHA formed “to educate, lobby and commit,” summed up its chair Rebekah Shaman.

“Educate on the importance of hemp, lobby the government for changes and to collect industry together so we become one voice.”

In other words, it was set up to bring the rules around hemp in line with a shift in public consciousness of the crop.

“There’s an incredible shift in public opinion, everyone loves hemp,” said Shaman. “In 2007, I was making a hemp porridge and people thought they could get stoned on it. That was 12 years ago and it was a nightmare trying to get hemp out there, nobody wanted to touch it. Now everyone knows about it.”

Farming hemp in the UK remains a tiny industry though, with an estimated 810 hectares (about 2000 acres) under cultivation currently, compared to 33,000 hectares (over 81,000 acres) across Europe.

That’s largely as the legislation around it remains prohibitive, believe the BHA, with the government trapped in a “conservative and regressive licensing system that isn’t flexible or responsive to this changing demand for the hemp industry,” Kinghan said. Applications for licenses, costing £580 (about $740), are now often limited to one year (where previously it was three) and applicants are even required in some cases to prevent full business plans with potential buyers set out for each part of the legal plant. Unsurprisingly that “creates a huge barrier” to new potential entrants to the market.

WHAT CHANGES ARE UK HEMP ADVOCATES CALLING FOR?

Whole plant hemp processing

One of the major changes being called for by the group is a lifting of the restriction that prevents the leaf and flower of the plant from being processed.

A hemp field, with young green hemp plants growing in many long densely packed rows. Under current regulations on hemp in the UK, farmers are forced to destroy large portions of the plant, while simultaneously the UK imports "millions of pounds worth of CBD" every year.

Under current regulations on hemp in the UK, farmers are forced to destroy large portions of the plant, while simultaneously the UK imports “millions of pounds worth of CBD” every year.

Already confined to farming hemp for the fibre and the seed, a tightening up in procedure last year now requires growers to physically destroy all other “contraband” green materials on site, said Kinghan, while at the same time the UK imports “millions of pounds worth of CBD” from elsewhere in the world, an entirely legal cannabinoid.

“The money is in the leaf and the flower so by removing that opportunity for extractors and processors we’re having to rely on imports without giving our farmers an opportunity to be part of the gain,” said Shaman. As part of its ‘Whole Plant’ campaign the BHA is set to argue that farmers should be able to sell the leaf and flower to licensed processors instead, removing any concerns around selling direct to the public and subsequent confusion.

Who controls UK hemp?

For Shaman there is then the question of which government department should oversee the crop. Currently, with much of the plant still classed as a controlled substance, it is the Home Office rather than the Department for Environmental Farming and Rural Affairs (under which all other arable crops sit) that takes the lead. With experience in agriculture not housed in the Home Office, she argued, “that is crippling the industry.”

Shaman continued:

This is an industrial crop that could be turned into bioplastics, bio-diesel or fuel and yet we’re not given an opportunity because it’s not seen as an industrially agricultural crop, it’s seen as a demon crop. While under auspices of the Home Office we can’t move it forward.

We have to take the whole conspiracy away from what hemp is and see it for what it is, a super environmentally friendly crop that has all sorts of industrial applications, and that can help us with our environmental impact as we choke under the dominance of fossil fuels, plastics and so forth.

A young child with short hair grins while holding a hemp leaf toward the camera. The British Hemp Association believes that hemp can have a massive positive impact on people in the UK and the planet as a whole, if that government will get out of their way.

The British Hemp Association believes that hemp can have a massive positive impact on people in the UK and the planet as a whole, if that government will get out of their way.

That includes, finally, for Shaman and the BHA more stability around acceptable levels of THC, which currently sits at 0.2 percent, down from 0.3 percent previously, following new guidance issued in 2014. “That makes it really difficult to get some varieties grown because the plant naturally produces it,” she said.

IN UK ‘HEMP IS THE NEXT BIG INDUSTRY’

With all this changed both Shaman and Kinghan insist the opportunity for hemp in the UK is huge.

“I think hemp is the next big industry,” said Shaman. “And if we became an industry hub for hemp, creating sustainable products and bioplastics or becoming the supplier for Europe we would start bringing manufacturing back and that creates jobs. Hemp can offer all of that very easily and quickly. And a lot of people want to get involved with it.”

“There’s a real opportunity for UK regulations to lighten with some guidance from experts in the industry to allow many more farmers to grow this crop,” added Kinghan.

“If the government can listen to the needs of the industry we’re chomping at the bit to develop a very wealthy, successful and thriving industry in the UK.”