Before destroying their 40-acre cannabis crop at the Home Office’s behest in July 2019, workers at the hemp farming co-operative Hempen in Oxfordshire roamed the fields, clapping and singing, in an attempt to warn away the wildlife that had found its home among the plants. Having to “destroy our healthy crop was devastating,” recalls Patrick Gillett, co-founding farmer of Hempen, “and yet the palpable injustice of it felt like a turning point on the path to reform.”
Hempen was legally growing industrial hemp – a non-psychoactive strain of cannabis; low in THC, the chemical that gets people ‘high’ – which it used to make hemp and cannabidiol (CBD) wellbeing products such as oils and moisturisers. After applying to renew its industrial hemp licence – required by law to grow industrial hemp – the co-operative was told by the Home Office that the law had changed such that they could no longer legally extract CBD from their plants to make their products, and would have to instead import the oil from abroad. Now, UK hemp crops can only be harvested for seeds and straw. In order not to run the risk of penalties, court or even prison sentences, the farmers had no choice but to tear up their beloved crop.
Now, Gillett is supporting a mass civil disobedience campaign, Liberate Hemp, organised by a collective of farmers, health practitioners, weavers, gardeners and artists, calling for people to grow industrial hemp plants without a licence – both at home, and at a mass action on 18 June in Bristol. “We want to get people growing hemp en masse,” says Gillett, “to render the law redundant and leave the government with a choice: either follow the people, and what’s right and fair, or start criminalising [everyone who has participated in the civil disobedience]”. To date, Gillett isn’t aware of anyone who has been prosecuted for growing hemp.
Criminalisation without justification.
Campaigners want hemp to be fully legalised, like other farmed crops, because of the plant’s many uses and benefits; indeed, Gillett describes it as “an ecological and health wonder crop”. Hemp is commonly used to make health and wellness products, such as oils and skincare, and supplements used to manage epilepsy and mental health issues (amongst other things). It’s also harvested to make building materials such as sustainable insulation and concrete alternatives. Hemp cultivation itself has environmental benefits, too – sequestering carbon faster than forests and improving soil quality as it grows.
The crop also presents economic opportunities. The UK has the biggest CBD market in Europe, valued at £690m, yet due to the strict regulatory framework around hemp, most products are imported. The market, therefore, holds untapped potential for UK farmers, many of whom would benefit from diversification to help them stay afloat in an increasingly hostile economic climate.
Growing industrial hemp is, legally speaking, no different from growing psychoactive cannabis plants. Both are controlled substances under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, and subject to a strict licensing regime, regulated by the Drugs and Firearms unit at the Home Office. An industrial hemp licence from the Home Office costs around £600, and the process of acquiring one is “bureaucratic, unjust and unfair”, according to Gillett. Farmers applying to grow hemp, he says, are often refused a licence for “opaque” and “trivial” reasons, such as the field in question being close to a footpath or road. All this is despite the UN Convention on Narcotics removing CBD from its controlled drug schedules following recommendations from the World Health Organisation, which found no public health risks for the substance.
Considering industrial hemp has no psychoactive properties, it would appear nonsensical that it falls under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Its criminalisation in this way, argues Gillett, is without “ethical or social justification”.
Who’s to blame?
Gillett believes these tight regulations stem from the interests of those with monopolies over the rapidly-growing legal cannabis market. For example, British Sugar runs the UK’s largest licensed non-psychoactive cannabis farm, and the company’s managing director, Paul Kenward, is married to Conservative MP Victoria Atkins, who was responsible for government drug policy from 2017 to 2019. Since 2016, British Sugar has sold its cannabis to GW Pharmaceuticals – the only UK company licensed to manufacture medicinal cannabis, which was bought by Jazz Pharmaceuticals in May 2021 for £7.2bn. If more people and more farms were licensed to grow hemp, says Gillett, it would pose “a major threat to the pharmaceutical industry”.
The origins of drug laws impacting industrial hemp, however, are less about corporate interests and more about racism. Whilst in the 16th century there was a law stating that landowners in England had to set aside a quarter of their acreage for hemp cultivation, and in the 19th century Queen Victoria may have been prescribed cannabis for menstrual cramps, by the 1930s cannabis was illegal. British prohibition followed the moral panic over ‘reefer madness’ in the US at the time, when criminalisation was championed by a campaign that linked marijuana to Black men, who were vilified as – amongst other things – a threat to white women.
The Misuse of Drugs Act in the UK today continues the racist history of cannabis prohibition. “It’s a completely nonsensical piece of legislation,” says André Gomes, communications coordinator for Release, the UK’s centre of expertise on drugs and drug laws. The Act, he says, is “only driving harms”, especially the disproportionate criminalisation and incarceration of people of colour. Suspected cannabis possession, for example, is often used as baseless grounds on which to stop and search Black men, who are at least seven times more likely to be targeted than white men. The Liberate Hemp campaign, then, is situated in a much wider context of cannabis laws and campaigning against them.
Whilst the government is cracking down on drugs and tightening restrictions on cannabis overall, with cannabis legalisation pushing on in other countries, and legal medicinal use rising, many campaigners believe it’s only a matter of time before we see legalisation in the UK. But legalisation isn’t the end goal. Gomes points out that since medical cannabis was legalised in 2018 (and, indeed, before that), medical development and access to cannabis has been dictated by big business, meaning it’s almost exclusively available via private healthcare. Hemp campaigning, he argues, like drug law campaigning, must be attentive to the inevitable attempts of the state and big business to control and monopolise profits if hemp is fully legalised so “the people who have historically and criminally been damaged by the prohibition [don’t get] forgotten” – as has happened in Canada with the drugs’ legalisation for recreational use.
Indeed, the legal cannabis industry in the UK is already dominated by white men. Liam O’Dowd is the editor of Leafie, a cannabis-focused magazine, and he says that industry events are dominated by “white men in button-down collared shirts talking about profits and lobbying”. To combat this, he argues, campaigning on cannabis laws – whether for industrial, wellbeing, medicinal or recreational use – must recognise the racism written into laws and the ways they are enforced.
What’s more, hemp campaigners need to acknowledge that growing hemp illegally as an act of resistance carries greater risks for people of colour compared to white people. Gillett says the Liberate Hemp campaign recognises this, and will consider “a prosecution to one […] a prosecution to all”, and plans to highlight the inherent racism of cannabis laws more as the campaign gathers momentum.
Beyond popularising the myriad health and environmental benefits of hemp, then, campaigners have the potential to lay the groundwork for a future cannabis industry grounded in social and racial equity. “I think [the hemp] industry can do so much from its position of legitimacy [to support wider campaigning on cannabis laws]” says Gomes, including calling for the overhaul of the Misuse of Drugs Act and the expungement of cannabis-related criminal records if the substance is legalised. In terms of hemp specifically, campaigners could also fight to make sure the crop’s full legalisation doesn’t exclude racialised people and those criminalised by cannabis laws (indeed, as things stand, applying for a hemp licence entails a Disclosure and Barring Service check).
In the near future, different aspects of the cannabis industry are bound to gain legitimacy and legalisation at different rates. For O’Dowd, what’s crucial is that activists from different backgrounds recognise the ways in which they’re all part of the same struggle.