CBD extracted from hemp is hugely popular in the UK, so you can understand why some people would expect hemp flower to be legal.
Hemp is rich in CBD and contains very little of the intoxicating cannabinoid THC. If CBD products are legal, it stands to reason that hemp flower should be too. However, the reality is far more complicated.
Hemp or CBD flower is classed as cannabis and is illegal for unlicensed sale and possession.
Industrial hemp is defined as a strain of cannabis with 0.2% THC or less.
CBD products are only legal when they meet four exemption criteria.
Licensed hemp growers can only use the stems and seeds; they must destroy the leaves and flowers.
Arrest for the possession or sale of CBD flower does happen, but it’s relatively rare.
Some brands and shops label their products as ‘not for human consumption’ or ‘tea’ to attempt to get around the law.
It’s the hemp flower itself that is restricted and even if it contains 0.2% THC or less, it is still illegal.
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What is Hemp Flower?
The name ‘hemp flower’ refers to the buds and flowers of low-THC varieties of cannabis. They contain a broad range of active substances known as cannabinoids. The most common cannabinoids in hemp are THCa and CBDa, which activate to become THC and CBD when exposed to heat, smoked or vaporized.
Hemp flower can be harvested and dried, then vaped, used as a tea or processed to extract the cannabinoids. In the UK, cannabis varieties are legally categorised as ‘industrial hemp’ when they have a ‘THC content not exceeding 0.2%’. The cultivation, import and possession of all forms of cannabis, including industrial hemp, are tightly controlled and licensed.
What Makes CBD Legal?
In the UK, CBD products are sold in high street stores, supermarkets and online. For each product to be compliant with the law, it must meet four criteria:
It must not be sold as a medicine or on the basis of any specific health benefit. Unless a product has been rigorously trialled, tested and approved to medical standards, it shouldn’t be sold as a medicine in the UK.
The container must not hold more than 1mg of any controlled drug such as THC, THCV or CBN.
It must not be prepared in a form that will allow any controlled cannabinoids (THC, THCV and CBN) to be easily extracted.
Products designed to be eaten or swallowed, such as capsules, gummies, oils, pastes and other edibles, need to have Novel Foods authorisation. This is awarded by the UK Food Standards Agency and is required to demonstrate that the product meets the standards required of any newly introduced foods. Other CBD products such as vape juices, cosmetics and balms do not need novel foods authorisation.
What Does UK Law SayAbout CBD Flower?
According to UK law, hemp flower is illegal. It’s treated as if it’s identical to high-THC cannabis flower. Legally all types of cannabis, including hemp, are defined as Class B controlled drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and Schedule 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001. This is the case whatever the THC content of the flower; even hemp flower that does not exceed 0.2% THC are still illegal.
The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 says:
[…] “cannabis” (except in the expression “cannabis resin”) means any plant of the genus cannabis or any part of any such plant (by whatever name designated) except that it does not include cannabis resin or any of the following products after separation from the rest of the plant, namely— (a) mature stalk of any such plant, (b) fibre produced from mature stalk of any such plant, and (c) seed of any such plant;”.
According to current law the only legal use of hemp flower is the controlled and licensed import of flower to be used in CBD production. Strangely, this is only permitted for imported flower. If a license is granted to a commercial organisation to allow them to grow a crop of industrial hemp, they’re only allowed to harvest and sell the stalks and seeds; the flowers and leaves must be destroyed.
Why Is Flower Still So Readily Available?
Despite its illegal status, you’ll likely have noticed that hemp flower is still available for sale online. The confusing information surrounding which hemp, CBD and cannabis products are legal has meant that some brands continue to sell it.
There are have been several well-publicised cases of police raiding shops and confiscating or destroying large amounts of hemp flower. However, in general, enforcement of the illegal status of hemp flower is inconsistent.
As a result, some companies continue to slip through the net. In many cases, the brands that continue to supply hemp flower do so because they’ve misinterpreted the law and believe it to be legal. Most companies in this position state that their products are legal because the THC levels don’t exceed 0.2%.
The Home Office has made it very clear that the 0.2% limit should only be used to determine which hemp strains can be used by licensed ‘industrial hemp’ growers. With hemp flower, it’s not the THC content that makes it illegal it’s because the flower itself is legally viewed as cannabis. The Home Office Drug Licensing Factsheet 2019 says:
The ‘0.2%’ reference is used solely to identify varieties which may potentially be cultivated.
Other hemp flower sellers try to use loopholes and labelling tricks to get around the law. Marking it as ‘not for human consumption’ is one method; this is based on the idea that if you don’t consume the flower it’s not illegal. However, the flower itself is restricted, whichever way it’s used or consumed.
Some even label whole buds as ‘tea’. This is a creative approach but doesn’t make any difference to the fact that it’s still not permitted by law. To be sold as a tea, the CBD flower must be milled and cannot be sold as whole buds.
Despite many CBD products being legal and many different rules and regulations surrounding hemp, the UK government is very clear that hemp flower is illegal. If found in your possession, you face the same legal penalties as if you were carrying the same amount of THC-rich cannabis.