UK Home Office Overhauls Hemp Licensing Framework In ‘Game Changing’ Move For Farmers


Last week, the UK Home Office announced some significant changes to its licensing framework for the country’s industrial hemp industry.

Despite being one of the first countries to allow the cultivation of industrial hemp in 1993, strict regulations have long hampered hemp farmers’ ability to meet the increasing demands for hemp from multiple industries.

These new amendments mark a ‘significant change’ in the government’s stance on the nascent hemp industry, industry insiders tell Business of Cannabis, showing that ‘they have listened’ to concerns surrounding regulation.

The UK’s Farming Minister, Mark Spencer, said in a recent press release: “Industrial hemp has huge potential across the UK to unlock new revenue streams, expand our bioeconomy without permanently removing land from food production, and bring wider environmental benefits.

“The licensing changes announced today recognise industrial hemp as a field-grown agricultural crop and will enable more farmers to add hemp to their crop rotations, sequester carbon, and sell their harvest to the textile and construction industries.”

Growing hemp in the UK

In the UK, hemp cultivation is governed by the Home Office’s ‘industrial hemp licensing regime’, which allows for the production of fibre and seed, and stipulates that there must be a ‘defined commercial end use’, while the seeds must be from approved strains with a THC content of less than 0.2%.

According to the latest government figures, the number of hemp licences in the UK has grown from just six in 2013 to 136 in 2023.

Alongside a strict licensing regime, UK hemp farmers are also facing increasing pressure from elsewhere.

The Chair of the Cannabis Industry Council’s Hemp Working Group, Tony Reeves, explained: “Farmers currently face a perfect storm of reduced subsidies, competition with countries with lower standards, as well as an expectation to reduce their carbon emissions.

“Industrial hemp offers a solution to all of these challenges, as well as being used down the supply chain as a sustainable construction product and source of energy.”

However, according to Heather Oldfield, Business Development Manager at Elsoms Seeds, a UK-based independent seed specialist and plant breeder, this represents a ‘significant change’ in the government’s relationship with hemp.

“I think the government is looking and seeing that there are big international names looking at this crop. I don’t think they can sit back and not take notice, because otherwise we’ll just be left behind. That’s now been made very clear to them.

“They obviously have listened, I think (last week’s announcement) was really positive.”

What has changed?

The new regulations, which have reportedly been ‘developed in collaboration with experienced growers’, offer three key changes for hemp farmers, due to come into force ‘for the 2025 growing season’.

Where hemp can be grown

The first key change relates to where a farmer can plant and grow hemp once they are licensed.

Under the newly planned changes, licence holders will now be able to ‘grow hemp anywhere on a licensed farm’. Ms Oldfield explained that this is key to helping farmers plan their rotations.

“At the moment, you have to put specific land parcels in specific fields, you can’t blanket the whole farm, you have to provide the government with grid references, details of neighbouring businesses, and photographs of field entry points, boundary screens or markers,” she said.

“As a farmer, you plan your rotation to move around your fields because you don’t really want to put the same thing on the field year-after-year, it’s not good for the soil, and it can encourage pests and disease. With the changes, farmers can now manage rotations more effectively, and they can move the hemp cultivation around their farm as they wish to manage soil health and pests.”

The British Hemp Alliance also welcomed the changes, calling them a ‘game changer’ for hemp farmers.

It said: “Being able to apply for the licence without specifying the exact plot of land will help farmers plan more easily, and move the crop to different fields, as it helps the yields of follow-on crops.”

Deferred start date 

Next, the government will allow farmers to apply for a licence with a deferred start date of up to one year, another move aimed at making forward planning easier for hemp farmers.

Ms Oldfield explained that, from the point of view of a breeder and someone who imports seed, the ability to defer a licence will enable farmers to know ‘a year in advance what what a breeder or maintainer needs to import, as well as manage seed market price fluctuations’

However, she suggested that enabling the licence to last ‘all year round’, as is the case with firearms licensing, would have been preferable, but understands this was not considered due to the potential administrative and financial costs.

Doubling the length of licences 

Another major upcoming change is the extension of the maximum licence duration from three years to six.

According to Ms Oldfield, many of the current contracts signed by hemp farmers last for five years, meaning that growers are often faced with the threat of having two years where they are unable to fulfil their obligations.

“A six year license, and a whole farm license will allow growers to effectively plan, mitigating the risk of not fulfilling a five year contract after year three, should a license be revoked. These changes offer growers far more confidence to produce, and processors the assurance to place longer term supply contracts.”

Raising the THC limit

Alongside these three changes, the UK government has also ‘asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to provide advice on whether the THC permissible in industrial hemp varieties could be safely raised to 0.3%’.

While this is far from guaranteed, it would represent the most impactful change for hemp farmers facing increasing competition from countries with higher THC caps.

Due to increasing temperatures in the UK, even hemp seeds with 0.2% THC content can end up exceeding this limit, putting farmers at risk of facing criminal penalties and forcing them to destroy their crops.

The BHA said: “Raising the THC levels to 0.3% in line with most of the global hemp grown, including USA and Europe, will give British farmers a much-needed advantage. As the UK summers get hotter and wetter it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep the THC levels below 0.2%.

“This change will ensure that farmers will not have to destroy their crops due to higher summer temperatures. The ACMD ruling must be given by October 2024, and secondary legislation will be enacted.”


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