Hemp trade hit by heavy-handed rules

Industrial hemp growers in East Anglia have criticised Home Office rules to license crops as 'heavy-handed' and adding costs to an emerging green sector.

And farmers have criticised the need for intensive criminal record bureau checks to plant several thousand acres of a crop grown for processing into insulation or light-weight car panels.

Breckland farmer Philip Lee, who has grown about 50 acres of industrial hemp for the past nine years, has asked South-west Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss to intervene.

The Home Office has introduced licensing fees from November 15, which will cost �1,371 for an annual inspection of cannabis sativa crops under the Misuse of Drugs Acts 1971.

And a basic fee of �580 for first-time growers or �326 for renewal was set without consulting the industry or Defra, said the National Farmers' Union yesterday.

Mr Lee, of Home Farm, Quidenham, near Attleborough, supplies Europe's largest hemp processor at Halesworth. He grows the crop because it is environmentally-friendly and needs no pesticides. 'It doesn't make a fortune but we're supplying a growing industry.'

'The Home Office has seen the cannabis or 'C' word and got their knickers in a twist because they can't understand the difference between cannabis and hemp.'

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'There was a bit of a giggle locally for the first year but everybody knows what it is. And who in their right mind would grow 50-odd acres out in the open if it was the cannabis drug,' said Mr Lee, aged 52, who grows carrots, parsnips, potatoes and cereal crops on the family farm.

The �3.6m factory, opened in July 2008 by Hemp Technology, can process about 50,000 tonnes of hemp straw from about 7,000 acres on farms across East Anglia.

The crop has a tiny drug content of less than 0.2pc.

Mr Lee, said: 'We used to be covered by an umbrella licence held by the processor. Now we have to have an individual licence from the Home Office. We have to have a CRB check, which costs about �80.

'Then when we've planted the crop, every seed bag label has to be sent to the Rural Payments Agency, so they can verify we've grown a permitted variety. We're not allowed to harvest until we get the all-clear from Defra.'

Engineer Stephen Eyles, of Northwold, who has designed a specialist hemp harvester, said his brother, Roger, who also grew the crop had to apply for a CRB check. 'It really doesn't make any sense,' he added.

The NFU said that the Home Office licensing system to control harmful narcotic drugs was not appropriate for field-grown hemp crops.

NFU vice-president Gwyn Jones, said: 'These licence fees are now potentially the bale of straw that will break the industry's back.'

Hemp, which is susceptible to frost and is planted from mid-April, has been grown in England since 1992, when individual inspection was required. This was criticised as costly and unnecessary and replaced for more than a decade by a light-touch regulatory regime until the Home Office's change of rules.