Way back in 1533, King Henry VIII made it a legal obligation for farmers to grow hemp. Growing one-fourth acres of hemp or flax was compulsory for every 60 acres of cultivated land. This legal compulsion extended to the American colonies of the British empire also.
Today, however, hemp has a complicated legal status in the UK. This is because Cannabis Sativa L as a plant species got outlawed in 1928. This is the plant species to which both hemp and narcotic cannabis or marijuana belong.
Despite this shared lineage, hemp differs from marijuana in many ways. The most important among them is the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content level. THC is the psychoactive element that gives the drug cannabis its mind-altering capacity. THC presence in marijuana is 7.5 to 10 per cent or higher.
Hemp, in contrast, cannot give anyone a high as THC presence in this plant is limited to 0.3 per cent or less. This vital distinction between the two varieties of Cannabis Sativa L got overlooked when the plant species as a whole got criminalized and prohibited.
Current Legal Status of Hemp in the UK
Hemp cultivation regained its legal status in the UK in 1993, but it remains an activity needing a special license. To become a hemp farmer, it is necessary to submit an electronic application to the UK Home Office and obtain a license before beginning the cultivation process.
A new license costs £580 and remains valid for one growing season. It needs renewal at the cost of £326 before the next growing season. The fee goes up to £1371 in case of a compliance visit. A license is valid for three years, expiring on 31st December of the final year.
However, hemp growers need to submit an Annual License Review Statement at the beginning of the second and third growing seasons. This submission cannot be later than 1st May. Any delay or failure to submit this statement may lead to the license being cancelled.
There are strict restrictions on how and where hemp can be grown. For instance, it is illegal to grow hemp anywhere near schools or publicly accessible places. That requires the submission of the following details on the application form known as the MD 29 form:
- Numbers of field location with names or grid references
- Details of the hectarage
- Full farm map with the hemp-growing area marked out
- Only seeds approved by the European Union can be used in the UK. Details of the seed type, THC content, and EU approval confirmation need to be mentioned in the application form.
- The THC content is restricted to two per cent in the UK.
Undergoing a check by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) is also an eligibility criterion for getting a hemp-growing license. Sometimes the Home Office also conducts a compliance visit, though that is not very common. However, hemp growers need to inform the local police about the location where hemp is grown.
Any change in the growing season or the planting site needs to be immediately communicated to the Home Office. The application details and the license number should be mentioned in that communication. However, that does not involve amending the license.
Under all these restrictions, only 1100 hectares were used for hemp production in the UK until 2015. That has currently reduced further to just about 900 hectares. France, the world leader in hemp seed supply and Europe’s topmost hemp growing country, grows hemp across 17,000 hectares according to the US-based Hemp Today.
Hemp vs. Cannabis in the UK
Culling a list of the top hemp startups in the UK is no mean job. That is because hemp continues to be clubbed with high-THC cannabis. Incidentally, it is also legal to grow narcotic cannabis or marijuana in the UK under a license with a hefty fee of £4700.
The UK government’s policies do not reflect great faith in the medicinal use of marijuana, though the country is the world’s leading producer and exporter of legally grown medical marijuana. Within the country, only two cannabis-based drugs can be legally prescribed, but the National Health Service (NHS) does not cover these drugs.
It is legal to sell and purchase CBD oil and hemp seed oil containing up to 0.2 per cent THC. However, companies producing these items cannot claim any medicinal benefits of these products on the labels. This ambivalence also means that companies dealing with hemp products remain subsumed under the umbrella term “cannabis industry.”
This confusion has needed us to painstakingly research for UK startups offering hemp-based products. We present our findings below. However, we have made no attempts to rank the companies. The numbers are purely for serialization. The arrangement is alphabetical.
Top 10 Hemp Startups in the UK
1. Associated British Foods
Best known for its agricultural and ingredients business in corn, sugar, and other items, this company also functions as a clothing retailer under the brand name Primark. However, there is little information on the company’s hemp business, which does not get a mention even in its annual reports.
According to the financial website IG, AB Foods has diverted a large plot of its land in Norfolk from growing tomatoes to cultivating hemp. It has emerged as one of the largest growers of licensed hemp in the UK. However, the company does not use hemp for any products.
AB Foods supplies the hemp it grows to GK Pharmaceuticals for the production of Epidiolex, a medicine for certain severe forms of epilepsy. This hemp-based medicine has the necessary approval both in the UK and the US.
2. CBDerma Technology
The second entry on this list of hemp startups in the UK is CBDerma Technology. This Bristol-based company got incorporated only in August 2019. The only information available about it is that it has entered into a joint venture with a pharmaceutical company with strong R&D. According to that pharmaceutical company, the founders of CBDerma Technology have good knowledge of plant-based products.
CBDerma is a shell company that will be sharing the development cost of a CBD oil-based medicine to be administered through the skin by the pharmaceutical company.
3. CBD Life UK
One of the founding members of the Cannabis Trades Association of UK (CTAUK), this company offers a range of CBD-based products that carry third-party laboratory test results. The company also sells hemp textile clothing. This range of products marketed by this company seems to be the most varied among UK startups.
Information is not available on where the company sources its hemp from. The website mentions using the CO2 extraction method, but nothing about where its manufacturing happens. Several reputed product review sites mention this same issue about the company.
However, the CTAUK aims at guaranteeing the quality aspects of hemp and cannabis products in the country. As a founding member, CBD Life UK is likely to be trustworthy about its quality standards.
4. Dragonfly Biosciences Ltd.
This London-based company is Europe’s leading CBD oil producer and supplier. It is a startup that also follows the seed-to-shelf approach. It grows its own hemp organically and produces other hemp-derived items also. Dragonfly CBD oils are the only CBD oil that Tesco Plc’s UK grocery stores stock.
Other well-known UK stores displaying the company’s CBD oils are J Sainsbury Plc, the Boots pharmacies, and the legendary Harrods departmental store. Though registered and incorporated in the UK in 2017, Dragonfly grows its hemp in Bulgaria at a licensed plot of 1800 acres. The CBD gets extracted in Romania.
The strong internal and external quality control measures have facilitated the company’s growth as one of the major CBD suppliers in Europe. It generated £1.1 million in the first six months of business, reports Bloomberg, the US-based media conglomerate that provides financial news about businesses.
A startup founded in 2018 by two rugby players, Dom Day and George Kruis, this company focuses on CBD oils, CBD balms, CBD muscle rubs, and capsules. With special attention to the needs of sportspersons, this company uses 100 per cent organically grown hemp.
All their products also carry third-party lab test reports. The company’s blog offers a number of informative articles on the benefits of CBD oil for sportspersons and as an after-workout item. Apart from retailing online, the company also wholesales to brick and mortar retailers.
6. Futura Medical
This is a research and development pharmaceutical company with the patented DermaSys technology for drug delivery. It has recently entered into a joint venture with CBDerma Technology Ltd to develop CBD oil-based pain relief medicines to be administered through the skin. The projected name of the medicine to be developed is CBD100.
7. Hemp Botanics
This company is different from the others mentioned so far because it does not have any product of its own. It is an online wholesaler of CBD oil and other CBD-based products in the UK and other EU countries.
Founded in 2014, Hemp Botanics sources most of its products from two US companies: CBDistillery and Extract Labs. Both of these companies use only fully organic hemp grown legally in the US. However, the company also supplies some products from other manufacturers.
The company’s explanation for selling US-based CBD products rather than the home-grown ones is that the American products it sells are the best in the world. All products that Hemp Botanics markets have laboratory test results mentioned.
The company maintains a professional relationship with noted members of the House of Lords, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), and the Food Standards Agency of the UK. These linkages also act as a quality guarantee of the products marketed by Hemp Botanics.
8. Hempen Cooperative
This nonprofit hemp farming and CBD oil producing organization founded in 2015 is one of the best known in the UK. The sad news is that the Home Office revoked Hempen’s license in July 2019. A legal appeal has since been lodged.
However, the company destroyed its crops to remain in compliance with the law. There was a fair amount of public outcry at this wastage, with loyal customers requesting Hempen to try and use the crops for some products from the leaves and stems.
This license cancellation is an indication of the ambivalence that the UK government has towards hemp. Apparently, it is legal to extract CBD oil from the leaves and stalks, but not from the flowers. Hempen used the flowers also since they are rich in CBD content.
9. Hempura Limited
Registered with the Cannabis Trade Association and The Vegan Society, Hempura has a five-star rating on the reputed consumer review website TrustPilot. The company sources all its hemp from EU countries only. However, CBD extraction happens in the UK only.
Hempura offers a range of products from CBD oil to CBD chocolates. Incorporated in October 2014, this is a micro company with less than 10 employees. Its previous name was Hadaway’s Ltd., which got changed to the current name in October 2019.
The company offers free delivery of its products anywhere in the UK. All its products have third-party lab reports for every stage: from organic certificates for the hemp to CBD and THC contents of the products.
10. Love CBD
Founded in 2014, this is a small family-run business based in Suffolk. Their speciality product is Entourage Oil, which combines several hemp contents with CBD. The company derived this idea from Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, who discovered the medicinal properties of hemp and cannabis ways back in the 1960s.
Love CBD uses only organically grown hemp from EU countries. They also have a range of food supplements containing CBD oil. The company works closely with the Cannabis Trades Association and the Medical and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) of the UK.
Bonus info never hurt anyone, did it? So here’s another promising company joining our list of hemp startups in the UK.
11. Provacan CBD
Founded in 2016, this company markets hemp-based products of the UK-registered biotech research firm CiiTech. This research firm has a collaboration with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the epicentre of hemp and cannabis research. From the CBD extraction methods to the product range, research findings at that university guide the company’s products.
The company sources its organic-certified hemp only from EU countries and uses the low-temperature CO2 technique to extract the CBD. All the products of this company have kosher certification from the Kashrut division of London Beth Din. This is Europe’s largest kosher certification agency and ranks among the top five of the world.