Because of its close associations with the intoxicating drug cannabis, UK hemp flower is subject to unnecessary government restrictions. Outdated legislation contradicts the evidence and causes real damage to farmers, the environment and the CBD industry.
The UK CBD industry is currently estimated to be worth about £400 million, but contradictory legal requirements mean that our own struggling agricultural sector won’t benefit from it. Also, misinterpretation of hemp’s complicated legal status has led to some retailers using chemical solvents to reduce the THC levels of hemp flower to prepare it for sale.
Legalising hemp flower and implementing a THC-limit of 1% would ensure that the UK can finally reap the benefits of this useful non-intoxicating plant.
Table of contents
- What is hemp flower?
- Is hemp flower legal in the UK?
- Industrial hemp can be grown under license in the UK
- The dangers with current hemp flower for sale in the UK and EU
- Poor quality hemp flower with added CBD isolate
- The natural limit of CBD in hemp flower
- Benefits to the UK if hemp flower is legalised
What is hemp flower?
Hemp flowers are the buds of low THC strains of Cannabis Sativa. The flowers contain the richest concentration of cannabinoids, including cannabidiol (CBD), but produce no intoxicating effects if consumed or inhaled. They’re sometimes also called hemp bud, CBD flower, CBD bud or CBD strain cannabis.
Is hemp flower legal in the UK?
Currently, hemp flower is illegal in the UK, but you’ll still find it sold in shops and on websites. Section 37(1) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 states that “any plant of the genus cannabis or any part of any such plant” should be classified as the illegal drug cannabis. The only parts of the plant exempt from this classification are;
· the mature stalks
· any fibre produced from the stalks
· the seeds
Consequently, despite not containing enough THC to produce intoxication, hemp flower is a controlled substance. However, some UK retailers continue to sell hemp flower because of confusion around the rules on growing hemp in the UK and EU. On the whole, police enforcement of this is relatively minimal, but it does happen. There have been several widely publicised cases of shops being shutdown and stock being confiscated.
Industrial hemp can be grown under license in the UK
Hemp can be grown legally in the UK, but only under license from the Home Office. The application includes an initial cost of £580, and applicants must complete a DBS check and submit detailed cultivation plans.
Licensed farmers can then grow hemp from a range of EU approved seeds that will produce plants with 0.2% THC or less. They can harvest the seeds and stems, but they must destroy the leaves and flowers. The variation of flower strains farmers can grow is limited to only the EU approved seeds.
The dangers with current hemp flower for sale in the UK and EU
A side effect of years of confusion around the legality of hemp flower means that some manufacturers use artificial methods to reduce the THC content of their product. This is usually because they incorrectly believe that it will be legal if it has a THC content of 0.2% or less.
Not all hemp bud suppliers reduce the THC content, but those that do are likely to use one of these methods:
Extracted from petroleum or crude oil, hexane is a colourless liquid often used in homes as an ingredient in powerful stain removers. It’s also used to extract oils from plants and vegetables.
To reduce their THC content, hemp flowers are added to a large tub of hexane and left in a freezer for about 48 hours. Afterwards, the hexane is drained away and the flowers are spread out to let the remaining solvent evaporate.
At this stage, the hemp flowers still look similar to when they started, but many of the cannabinoids and terpenes have been removed. When the hemp flowers are completely dry, they are sprayed with synthetic terpenes to add a new flavour profile.
If the flowers start at about 0.9% THC and 20%+ CBD, this process will likely get them to about 0.12% THC and 5% CBD. They will also contain fewer beneficial plant compounds, as well as having lower levels of THC and CBD.
The end product will have a lighter green appearance that is appealing to customers and makes it easier for retailers to sell. The hemp varieties most often chosen for this technique are V1 and Harlequin because they both retain a sellable appearance after treatment with hexane.
2: Washing down
Commercial extraction systems that use pressurised solvents to remove cannabinoids from raw plant material can also reduce the THC content of hemp flower.
To do this, the hemp flowers are stacked into the columns of the extraction system. Solvent is then released into the tank. It’s kept at a low pressure and allowed to gently flow across the hemp flower, stripping the cannabinoids and terpenes from the trichomes. The hemp flowers are then allowed to air until they’re completely dry and can be prepared for sale.
This method can be used with different systems and different solvents, including butane, propane, ethanol and supercritical CO2. It’s an effective process because there is more control over the solvent pressure.
Skuffing is less common now but involves tumbling the hemp flowers inside a motorised spinning barrel. This knocks off any trichome gland heads that are saturated with cannabinoid-rich resin.
While it’s a relatively low-cost method and doesn’t use chemicals, it’s too random to produce the consistent results necessary to guarantee low THC hemp flowers. The other major drawback is that it can cause considerable damage to the buds, making them unappealing to customers and hard to sell.
Poor quality hemp flower with added CBD isolate
The end product of these ‘reduction’ methods is always poor quality and far from full spectrum, with the hemp flower having been stripped of many of its most helpful and natural plant substances. Sometimes the hemp flower may even be contaminated with residual solvents completely negating the benefits of CBD.
In many cases, the cannabinoids are reduced to a point where there is 0.01% THC and 1% CBD. Then manufacturers use acetone as a carrier to spray the flower with synthetic terpene profiles and CBD isolate. When this happens, the hemp flower is just a vessel for these additional substances and sadly contains very little of its original natural and beneficial properties.
This is an excellent example that unrealistically low THC limits can cause more harm than good. By trying to make their products legal, manufacturers introduce more harmful substances and ultimately produce an inferior product.
The natural limit of CBD in hemp flower
As well as the artificial reduction of THC levels in hemp flower, a low THC limit, like the 0.2% threshold set in the UK and EU, means that the hemp will also be low in CBD. This is because, as you can see in the graph, the ratio of CBD to THC is linked in CBD dominant cannabis strains. Plants with low levels of THC will also have low levels of CBD and plants with even slightly more THC can yield much higher amounts of CBD.
This is because both THC and CBD are formed from a series of chemical reactions as hemp grows and matures. How much of each is produced depends on the plant cells’ available chemicals, the plant genetics, and external factors such as temperature, light, and nutrients. Consequently, the amounts of CBD and THC are closely linked together.
As shown on the graph, plants with THC levels of 0.2% or less are only ever likely to yield up to 5% CBD. There are growers that have managed to achieve 8% CBD and under 0.2% THC, but this is quite rare. At the moment, this isn’t a problem in the UK because hemp can only be grown for stems and seeds and not to harvest CBD. However, if it becomes legal to harvest hemp leaves and flower, a 0.2% THC limit will mean that the only plants available are those that produce small CBD yields.
If hemp flower was legalised and the THC limit was raised to 1%, farmers would be able to access plants that can produce up to about 25% CBD. The 0.2% THC limit for legal hemp strains in the EU is set to be lifted soon, but it will only rise to 0.3%. Elsewhere, some countries already allow the cultivation of hemp with up to 1% THC. These include Switzerland, Uruguay, South Africa, Malawi, Thailand and Ecuador.
Benefits to the UK if hemp flower is legalised
Currently, the UK CBD industry depends on hemp imported from the EU and the US. This adds to its cost and increases the carbon footprint of every bottle of CBD oil or jar of hemp tea.
If farmers had more freedom to grow and harvest hemp flower, it would result in many benefits for the UK:
New job opportunities - A thriving hemp flower industry would provide thousands of new jobs, from farming to extraction, production and retail.
Business opportunities - UK grown hemp flower would be easier and possibly cheaper for new businesses to access. Having a close source of raw materials will cut down on red tape and transportation costs.
Prevent waste - Current hemp farmers are forced to destroy hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of hemp flower every year. A change in policy would prevent this waste and allow farmers to fully benefit from the success of their crops.
The UK as a CBD hub for Europe - If the legalisation of hemp flower was combined with a raise of the THC limit to 1%, it would allow farmers to produce more CBD from less hemp, and give us the edge in terms of production. Switzerland already benefits from their 1% THC limit because they can produce CBD more efficiently than their neighbours.
Thousands of industrial hemp applications - Fewer restrictions on hemp farming might encourage more farmers to consider producing hemp. The stems and seeds would then be available to make other products, including hemp seed oil, building materials, packing materials and even bio-fuel.
More hemp is better for the environment - Hemp can absorb more CO2 per hectare than trees or any other crop. It is also great at regenerating soil and doesn’t require pesticides or herbicides.
CBD products can be manufactured from seed to shelf in the UK - By allowing the production of hemp flower, the entire manufacturing process of CBD products could take place within the UK. Companies aiming to reduce costs and pass them on to their customers may be able to keep all the farming and production in-house.
Safer products - Legal hemp flower means that it’s more likely to be produced safely and effectively. And, if the THC limit was also raised, there would be no pressure on some retailers to attempt to reduce the THC content of their products artificially.
The UK government’s current approach to the hemp plant completely ignores that it is a safe, non-intoxicating plant with many potential benefits for the economy and farming sector. Legalising it and implementing a THC-limit of 1% are necessary steps to address this issue and ensure that such a useful resource no longer goes untapped.
Stopping the unnecessary destruction of hemp flower would allow many of the benefits of this growing industry to be directed into our own economy. It would also cut down on the costs and emissions incurred by large scale hemp imports.
By following the example of Switzerland and implementing a 1% THC limit to legal hemp strains instead of the 0.2% limit currently enforced in the EU. We would be able to maximise the efficiency of CBD and be in an excellent position to become a global centre for CBD and hemp production with the highest quality.