Why Is Hemp Flower Such A Contentious Issue In The UK?

The issue of whether hemp flower is legal in the UK or not has caused a huge amount of debate among cannabis industry professionals and the interested public alike. But why?

Are the laws really that unclear? Is the non-psychotropic smokable a danger to the flourishing CBD industry? Can hemp flower be dangerous to people? Why are so many shops still selling it?

All these questions will be answered as we take a close look at hemp flower in the UK.  

The law from 1971

Most forms of cannabis are illegal in the UK under the The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Hemp, however – which is cannabis grown from EU-approved seeds and contains less than 0.2% THC – can be grown and processed legally if you have a licence. 

CBD in its pure form is also not controlled under the MODA 197. Interestingly, neither is THCa, which is the acidic precursor to THC. However, you’d have trouble making sure THCa doesn’t degrade into in THC, which happened naturally and under heat. 

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 also makes some cannabis-derived products exempt. To meet the criteria of an exempt product, it must comply with these three statements: 

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 [in this case, THC and CBN] or one microgram.

Most CBD products in the UK are illegal 

Looking at the wider CBD market in the UK, it’s clear that most products currently on sale do not meet the requirements of an exempt product. 

For starters, most full-spectrum CBD products are going to have over 1mg of THC in them. And even if they have less than 1mg, as most products are “designed for administration to a human being,” they aren’t legally allowed to contain any THC at all!

Therefore, technically, any product designed for human consumption that contains any amount of THC or CBN is illegal under the MODA 1971. That means every full-spectrum oil, gummy bear, and even hemp seed oil! It also includes hemp flower, unfortunately.  

Therefore, the only legal CBD products are those that contain no THC whatsoever, such as broad-spectrum products. 

Products made with CBD isolate are currently permitted to be sold but, as things stand, they are listed as novel foods and could be removed from shelves at some point in the future. They would then have to go through expensive testing and licensing before going back on the market. 

What about hemp tea?

Some trade bodies advise that if you crush up hemp flower and sell it as hemp tea, it can be legally sold. There may be case for this thanks to EU regulations surrounding herbal teas, and the fact that hemp tea has been demonstrably consumed for thousands of years. 

However, the UK doesn’t have to adhere to these herbal tea regulations (especially post-Brexit) and it’s also overlooking the fact that hemp tea still contains controlled substances (THC and/or CBN). 

Also, there are rules in the UK that prevent anything except tobacco from being sold as a smokable.

Free movement of goods

There may be a case for selling hemp flower, however, thanks to the principle of mutual recognition.  

Mutual recognition is the principle of EU law under which member states must allow goods that are legally sold in another member state also to be sold in their own territory. This ensures the free movement of goods in the EU.

And, in 2001, the German and Swiss authorities permitted the use of hemp flower in end products, followed by Romania and Italy, effectively clearing the way for hemp flower to be sold across the EU. 

The law is not absolute, however. Exceptions can be made if there are “overriding reasons of public interest” (such as health and safety concerns). In these cases, the member state that is prohibiting the product must provide clear reasons why restrictions have been put in place. 

So, are there any safety risks or concerns when it comes to hemp flower, a product that has been consumed in Europe for hundreds of years and around the world for thousands?

There is none. Hemp has been grown widely throughout Europe (including the UK) for a very long time and current cultivation is restricted to seed varieties approved by the EU. These cannabis varieties are considered non-psychotropic, ‘non-drug’ varieties thanks to their extremely low THC content.

The impressive safety profile of hemp and CBD is well established. 

The concerns of self-appointed “trade bodies” 

There are a couple of trade bodies have been warning against companies selling hemp flower. This sounds reasonable, especially if it’s not being sold as tea. 

However, these same trade bodies seem to overlook the fact that a large percentage of products being sold by their member companies are also unlawful.

Some of these bodies also express concerns about hemp flower being sprayed with isolated CBD and terpenes to increase its value. There is also a fear that, due to its unregulated status in the UK, hemp flower contaminated with pesticides and heavy metals may be making its way onto the UK market. 

Again, this could be seen as somewhat hypocritical considering that tests on 31 high-street products by the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis (CMC) found illegal levels of THC and/or CBN in almost half. 62 per cent also didn’t contain the CBD content promised on the label.

One product had 3.8% ethanol – meaning it qualifies as an alcoholic beverage – while  solvent dichloromethane was detectable in seven products (3.8-13.1ppm) and cyclohexane was found in one product (27.9ppm). These percentages of solvents and heavy metals are above food limit safety levels.   

The arrests (and lack of prosecutions)

Just this month, at least two major hemp flower retailers have had visits from the police. Stock was seized and, in some cases, arrests were made. 

These weren’t the first, however. In fact, raids and seizures have been happening periodically for about 12 months.  

Was it strange about it, though, is that none of these shop owners have been prosecuted. Yes, there was the one widely reported case of John King, owner of the Mushroom Headshop and CBD Botanicals Store in Preston. 

But whether this can be counted as a conviction for selling hemp is debatable. It’s believed that due to prior offences, the defendant pleaded guilty to selling Class B drugs. The accusation wasn’t contested and the flower wasn’t tested for THC content. So does this really set a precedent?

And why have no other shop owners faced court? And why have some owners even been given their stock back to them? There are still many unanswered questions. 

The shops still selling

In light of all these seizures and closures, a number of shops continue to sell hemp flower in the UK- including some that have been previously raided. 

6 out of our top 10 hemp flower sellers are still active. 

I can’t imagine that the owners of these shops are knowingly breaking the law. I am sure that they have they have obtained legal advice and have reason to believe that what they are doing is, in fact, lawful – or at least very difficult to prosecute against. 

And I, for one, commend these sellers for doing what’s right – providing a highly effective natural product to the public – while pushing boundaries that need to be pushed. 

The future

Mike Harlington, who is chair of the Cannabis Trade Associaton (CTA), recently made this comment on my website:

“…we have been speaking to a number of departments discussing how CBD flowers could be made safely available ensuring that there is a safe supply, however there is still a sticking point of THC/CBN in those flowers.

“We have also been involved in a number of discussions in Europe around this subject and while it may not directly involve the UK at present, there is a process being discussed to legally allow flowers to be supplied legally.”

What this suggests to me is that the authorities understand how difficult it would be to enforce a ban against hemp flower, especially considering that hemp flower and its derivatives are completely legal in much of the continent. 

Therefore, I believe that a regulated hemp flower industry will be allowed to exist in some shape or form. 

Perhaps once Brexit is in the rear view mirror, the UK government will recognise the impact a domestic hemp flower and CBD industry could offer and changes will be made to the law.  

Whatever happens in the short term, cannabis and the human race have a relationship that spans millennia. To think that a century of prohibition and a group of outdated politicians could keep it from us is naive. 

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