Is hemp cultivation legal in the UK?

Is hemp cultivation legal in the UK?


Sam North is an experienced cannabis consultant and writer who provides education and guidance for businesses, commercial projects, and private clients. With over 5 years of industry experience, Sam is passionate about the potential of cannabis to help restore balance and well-being into people's lives.

Hemp. Often confused with its intoxicating kin, or what we mostly refer to as cannabis (which is still a class B controlled substance), hemp is actually just one part of the cannabis sativa L. genus. For plants to be classed as hemp here in the UK, they must produce less than 0.2% of the psychoactive cannabinoid, known as THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).

While hemp is legal to grow for commercial purposes, the licences required to do so are not only restrictively priced, but also difficult to obtain. The rules that go hand in hand with such a licence are also pretty convoluted, so much so that they are essentially forcing UK hemp farmers to drop behind their international counterparts. Legislators seem uninterested in making this process any easier and continue to view hemp in much the same light as cannabis.

Considering the significant role that hemp has played historically in the UK, all of this does seem a little punitive. The THC content in hemp is so low that, even if it were consumed, it would not cause any psychotropic effect. And with the rise of CBD (cannabidiol – a cannabinoid found in abundance in hemp plants) as a wellness and therapeutic aid, this regulatory hurdle is something that should be addressed sooner rather than later.

In this comprehensive guide on hemp in the UK, we will explore the legal framework, licensing requirements, and guidelines that are in place. Whether you are a farmer looking to enter the hemp industry or simply curious about the potential benefits of hemp, this article will provide you with valuable insights and a deeper understanding on the history of hemp, where it currently stands, and where many hope it will go in the future.

The historical background of hemp in the UK

Hemp has a long and fascinating history here in the UK. Way before the prohibition on cannabis that was introduced in the 1920s, hemp was a staple crop that was grown for its strong fibre and nutritious seeds.

In historical records dating back to 373 BC, the earliest mention of hemp emerges, when the Celtic princess, Cambri Formosa, was credited with recording the plant's weaving potential. In an era when Celtic clans relied on trade for survival, periods of peace followed successful exchanges with neighbouring communities. To maximise these peaceful intervals, Princess Cambri imparted her knowledge of sewing and weaving with hemp to the women of her clan. This skill allowed them to create garments, ropes, and sacks, further enhancing their trade and prosperity.

More than a millennium later, in 1533, King Henry VIII passed a for the time, revolutionary law, making hemp cultivation in England compulsory. That meant that every farmer had to grow at least a quarter of an acre of hemp for every 60 acres of land under their control. Farmers were even encouraged to pay their taxes in hemp, as the crop was just so valuable. Hemp grows faster than cotton, and the fibres produced were of a higher quality. This, coupled with its versatility (from clothing to paper, but most importantly to the king – as ropes and sails for his Royal Navy ships and its adaptability to a variety of climates, made hemp an indispensable resource for England.

However, hemp fell out of favour during the first part of the 20th century. It was associated with the THC-dense varieties of cannabis, with both sides of the cannabis sativa L. genus being grouped together and heavily stigmatised.

And that brings us up to the present day. Despite its long and successful history in the UK, the fact that hemp doesn't produce the same psychoactive effects as cannabis and that the social, legal, and political landscape has changed dramatically in regard to medical cannabis – the legality of not only the hemp itself but how it is cultivated, is anything but straightforward.

This begs the question…

What are the exact laws surrounding hemp in the UK?

Today, the entire genus is listed as a controlled drug in Class B of The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. However, in line with The Industrial Hemp Regulxations 2001, with a special licence issued from the home office, the plant can be grown, but only certain parts can be legally harvested. 

This is where the confusion comes in, and it's also the main reason why UK hemp farmers are lagging behind their European counterparts.

UK farmers must destroy both the leaves and the buds (flowers) as soon as they are separated from the harvested plants. The only parts that can be legally collected are the seeds and fibres.

Why, you ask?

The flowers and the leaves are where the majority of the cannabinoids, such as CBD and THC, are found in abundance. And even though farmers are only legally allowed to grow hemp cultivars that contain less than 0.2% THC, they still have to destroy the parts of the plants that contain it.

Now, from the outside looking in, this may seem like a logical decision. But, considering the many therapeutic benefits of cannabinoids like CBD, this requirement is a backwards step in terms of legislation that has been moving forward in leaps and bounds throughout Europe. That's not to mention the fact that products containing CBD are totally legal here in the UK.

    What are the steps involved in obtaining a licence to cultivate hemp?

    So, even with the heavy restrictions in place, if you still want to cultivate hemp on a commercial level, you will need to get hold of a hemp cultivation licence through the UK Home Office, fill in the MD-29 form on their Drug Licensing website, and also let your local police station know that you’re growing it.

    Before filling out the application, you need to:

    • Ensure you are applying within the application window as outlined on the Home Office website
    • Download the ‘iCasework web app’ and sign up
    • Apply for your enhanced DBS check using the links available on the Home Office website, ensuring the Home Office is noted as the relevant body

    On the form, you’ll complete the following fields:

    • Your full name and contact information 
    • Where you intend to plant the hemp – the name of the location or a grid reference
    • How much you will plant, usually in hectares
    • A map marking your intended growing area
    • The type of seed you will plant and its THC concentration

    The application fee is £580 and you may also have an inspection officer come round to look at the plot to check if all the information you provided is correct. If this is the case, expect to be out of pocket for another £1,371.

    The licence is valid for 3 years, but again there is a caveat to this. Say you are granted a growing licence in September 2023, your '3 year' licence will actually end on the 31st of December 2025, meaning you will lose a whole season. You must also complete an ‘annual licence review statement’ at the start of each growing season. The renewal fee currently stands at £326.

    Is it legal to consume hemp?

    As a consumer or patient rather than a grower, hemp seeds, hemp oil and other edible hemp products are all legal, provided they contain less than 0.2% THC. CBD products, which are mostly produced from hemp cultivars overseas, are also legal and applied for a variety of therapeutic and wellness purposes. THC-dominant cannabis strains and products containing more than 0.2% THC are illegal unless they come in medical form with a doctor’s prescription. 

    The wide-ranging benefits of hemp

    In the last couple of years, hemp has been making a comeback in diverse sectors. It has become a highly sought-after ingredient found not only in health foods, oils, and natural remedies but also in skincare products, textiles, and is making a splash in the construction industry.

    One of the key reasons for its popularity is the widely recognised nutritional benefits of hemp seeds. These tiny powerhouses are packed with essential nutrients, including omega fatty acids, vitamin E, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, magnesium, sulphur, calcium, iron, and zinc. Incorporating hemp seeds into your diet can contribute to overall well-being and provide a natural boost of goodness for your body.

    • Hemp offers significant environmental benefits by acting as a CO2 absorber, helping to offset fossil fuel emissions.
    • Additionally, it has the capacity to restore the health of contaminated soil, enhance nutrient levels, and promote the growth of neighbouring plants, even in flower beds.
    • Moreover, hemp cultivation supports biodiversity.
    • Growing hemp without the need for pesticides or herbicides makes it a more sustainable and eco-friendly option for your backyard.
    • On a larger scale, commercial hemp farming can contribute to local industries and manufacturing.
    • With its increasing popularity and demand, hemp farming can be a profitable venture for farmers, ultimately boosting the economy.

    Where is the UK hemp industry headed?

    Onward, and upward. At least, that's what we hope…

    This incredible plant is not only versatile and eco-friendly, but it also has a range of medical applications. With the passing of the UK's Psychoactive Substances Act in 2016, hemp and CBD products have been given the legal go-ahead, leading to increased demand and more opportunities for UK farmers.

    By all predictions, there is nothing stopping hemp from becoming a multi-billion-pound industry in the next few years, apart from the current restrictions on flower and leaf harvesting. With specialised products ranging from industrial hemp to medical grade CBD, hemp truly is set to make a major impact, and provide the economy with a much-needed boost. But, for this to become a reality, the regulations need to be simplified and the bureaucracy surrounding hemp cultivation must be stripped back in order for UK farmers to truly take advantage of this golden opportunity.

    Let's hope that the UK Home Office remains open to the idea of a thriving UK hemp industry and removes the burdensome restrictions on growing and harvesting. This could lead to an exciting future for both farmers, patients, and consumers alike.

    Final thoughts

    The UK may have had a rocky relationship with hemp in the past, but it certainly appears that things are beginning to look up. Although the restrictions that are currently in place hinder the industry's progress, hemp is here, and unlike the prohibition days that started a century or so ago, it is here to stay. Hemp is simply too versatile and too important in too many industries to be ignored any longer. With the right support, it could become a major player in the UK economy.

    If you are considering adding hemp-based products to your current health or wellness routine, Releaf is here to help. Don't let the stigma surrounding medical hemp and cannabis prevent you from getting a suitable treatment. Releaf provides tailored monthly packages, specialist consultations for medical cannabis, and a unique medical cannabis card for protection, all based on your medical cannabis prescription.

    It is important to seek medical advice before starting any new treatments. The patient advisors at Releaf are available to provide expert advice and support. Alternatively, click here to book a consultation with one of our specialist doctors.

    Related Articles

    03. 11. 2023

    Awaiting Asian Adventure? Considering cannabis-based legislations when travelling in Asia

    Daydreaming of exploring Asia’s incredible landscapes, culture, and vibrant cities is a common occurrence for many, and nations like the Philippines and Singapore feature on bucket lists around the world as a ‘must-see destination’. But, Asia is also extremely well known for enacting strict punishments to suspected drug smugglers and traffickers.

    03. 11. 2023

    Could Oceania be your Oasis? An Overview of medical cannabis rules and regulations in Oceania

    Dreaming of idyllic white sand beaches and secluded spots in Polynesia, or experiencing extreme outback adventures in Australasia is a desire shared by many, and places like Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia feature on many people’s bucket lists. Yet, for medical cannabis patients, planning their dream holiday may be filled with dread - due to the confusing and often conflicting cannabis regulations in different countries.