THE Home Office may be forced into an embarrassing climbdown from a ruling that farmers growing hemp should be vetted for criminality and charged up to £1,500 for a licence under the Misuse of Drugs Act.
Defra's new attempt to slash bureaucracy, the Task Force on Farming Regulation, has promised an early review of the decision, which was brought quietly into force towards the end of 2010, the Yorkshire Post has been told. And MPs are picking up on farmers' complaints that the regulation is pointless.
Hemp grown for fibre and oils is the same plant, cannabis sativa, that produces hashish and marijuana in hot climates. But the strains used have a next-to-nothing content of the drug concerned, THC, when grown outdoors in the UK.
A farmer told the Yorkshire Post: "There were a few raids on hemp fields when people started growing it. But people quickly discovered they would die of smoke inhalation before they got anything out of it. And the THC content is so small, you would need a huge plant to extract it industrially."
Defra scientists carry out random sampling of THC content, as part of the inspection regime for farm support payments, and the farmers point out there has never been a case of drugs being grown under the disguise of industrial hemp in this country. Almost all convictions relate to hothouse production of cannabis.
Nick Voase grows and processes 300 acres of hemp at Beswick, near Driffield. For seven years, he got a free licence from the Home Office – and the biggest processor in England, Hemp Technology of Suffolk, had an umbrella licence which covered all its growers.
But since last year, all the farmers have been required to pay around 500 for a new licence, including nearly 100 for a check with the Criminal Records Bureau, valid for three years, plus 326 for licence renewals and nearly 1,000 extra if the Home Office selects them for inspection.
At first, the Home Office was also asking for secure fencing around the fields, although it seems to have dropped this requirement.
Mr Voase said: "It's an unfair and unnecessary charge on a legitimate business. And it takes quite a lot of time. It would certainly be an obstacle if one of my neighbours wanted to plant 25 acres to chip in."
Bedmaker Harrison Spinks has a Tadcaster area farm producing hemp to replace imported cotton in mattresses and there is a developing market for hemp matting as a growing medium for seedlings – and growers are under Defra pressure to find alternatives to peat.
The NFU's lead officer on the subject, Ruth Digby, says potential for the crop is "exciting" and there is a danger of customers buying French imports if the Home Office discourages home hemp production.
No other EU country bothers about the remote possibility of misuse of the crop.
The Home Office said: "We have re-introduced fees for licences to fund improvements to the service. The money will help to improve application times and quality of service."
Staging a comeback
Hemp used to be a staple British crop, used for all sorts – including most of the rigging on sailing ships.
The word canvas derives from the description cannabaceous for the sailcloth it made.
It has been making a comeback since the early 1990s, with industry turning away from synthetics derived from oil. Now it is used in building blocks, insulation, animal bedding, industrial oils and health foods and the internal panels on the BMW 5 and 3 series.