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Europe’s Decision to Raise Permitted THC Levels in Hemp Crops Is ‘A Victory For Science’

The recent increase in hemp crop THC levels represents not only a win for the European hemp sector, but also a step forward in the direction of more science-based policies, says Lorenza Romanese. Managing Director of the European Industrial Hemp Association (EIHA). 

ON Thursday December 2 – after long and often-heated discussions – we were delighted to announce that the new Common Agricultural Policy had been adopted, thus restoring the maximum THC level on the field to 0.3 %

However, we believe there is still some way to go to before we establish comprehensive regulations around products in the hemp value chain across Europe. 

For example, the threshold on 0.3% will only establish a concrete limit for varieties of hemp that are eligible to receive direct payments under the CAP. 

At a national level, this and other previous limits have been used to simply acknowledge a maximum THC limit for legal cannabis cultivation. 

25-Year Struggle

In fact, Member States, in order to differentiate industrial hemp from drug-type cannabis, have always looked to establish a threshold that was as low as possible.

The THC limit on the field for the purpose of direct payments was first established by the European Union in 1984 at 0.5 %; however, starting from 1988, the limit was lowered to 0.3 %, and justified with the need to ‘protect public health’. 

As you may have guessed, that was not it. A decade later, in 1999, THC levels on the field were once again lowered: this time to 0.2 %. No evidence was presented at the time to support such change. 

Establishing a lower THC limit in Europe had a dramatic impact: it further restricted the choice of hemp varieties for European farmers and breeders.

Lorenza Romanese

The 0.2 % limit, originally intended to regulate the financial support given to hemp cultivation, was subsequently misinterpreted and adopted by Member States and included into national narcotic legislation.

In fact, although the mentioned limit refers only to subsidies, almost all European countries orientated their hemp cultivation regulation – and exemption permits in the particular national narcotic acts – on the THC limit of this EU directive. 

It was not until October 23, 2020, when an important development occurred: In the framework of the adoption of the new CAP the European Parliament voted to adopt its amendments to the proposed text, which would notably alter the permitted level of THC for eligible hectares which can receive direct payments from 0.2% to a level not exceeding 0.3%. This amendment was indeed confirmed on December 2.

Hemp And The Common Agricultural Policy

The Treaty of Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) authorises the European Union to define and implement a CAP. 

The CAP – launched in 1962 – aims primarily at supporting farmers and improving agricultural productivity, while ensuring a stable supply of affordable food.

Within the TFEU, the agricultural products which are included in EU agricultural legislation are set out in Annex I of the Treaty. These include raw or processed, but not spun ‘true hemp, along with its tow and waste – including pulled or garnetted rags or ropes. 

Therefore, it can be stated that hemp is a recognised agricultural crop in the European Union. Moreover, and thanks to the CAP, farmers are entitled to receive direct payments  for cultivating hemp hectares. Nevertheless, in order to be eligible, they have to meet the following criteria: 

The variety of hemp being cultivated must have a THC content below 0.2 % and  0.3 % starting from 2023 and if a farm deviates from this limit, it will not receive EU aid.

Farmers must use certified seed of varieties listed in the EU common catalogue of varieties of agricultural plant species. There are currently 81 different hemp varieties registered in this catalogue. 

Seeds are certified at national level, which means that they are first registered on the national catalogue, and then on the EU catalogue. 

In this respect, there might be discrepancies between the varieties authorised at EU level and those authorised at national level. For instance, the Czech Republic is discussing the possibility to accept varieties up to 1%, but these might not end up entering the EU catalogue. Austria and Luxembourg already accept varieties up to 0.3%. 

What Will The New Level Deliver?

By increasing the THC limit to 0.3 % for direct payments, the European Union is implicitly ‘giving the green light’ to Member States to authorize and recognize the safety of varieties up to 0.3 %. 

From this, we can expect that new varieties will be registered, resulting in higher resistance to diseases and more adapted solutions for the different pedoclimatic conditions. 

Moreover, when controls on the field will be performed, those varieties that used to go beyond 0.2 % under specific conditions will now be in full compliance with the regulation and will not risk being removed from the EU or national catalogues.

Let’s not forget that this increase also brings Europe closer to other hemp producing countries such as the US, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, that all had limits equal or above 0.3% already. 

Finally, we would possibly experience a fairer level-playing field in terms of international competition.

0.3% Is Here…What Next?

The change comes into force in January 2023, but it is still too soon to envisage whether the legislator will accept a further increase in this level in the next reforms. 

As a matter of fact, before asking for a 1% THC level, we should evaluate the market in five years from now.

While 1% seems to be trend worldwide, we need to work on other related regulations before moving up to 1%.

Earlier this year we made submissions to the European Commission which contend that the THC levels it currently advocates in food supplements are too low with our recommendations based on sound science, as reported by BusinessCann.

We hope the European Commission will also take a more enlightened view on these proposals, too.

Now that we have made progress on the on-field hemp THC levels our aim is to help support the delivery of a more holistic approach to the whole hemp plant by the European Commission and all its constituent national authorities.

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