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UK Cannabis Cultivation Staff In Short-Supply Due To Post-Brexit Seasonal Labour Shake-UP

CHANGES to immigration policy post-Brexit has resulted in a shortage of seasonal labour at UK-based medicinal cannabis cultivation sites, claims the company that owns Britain’s largest such operation.

Peter Watson, agricultural director of British Sugar – whose cultivation site in Wissington, Norfolk, produces cannabis for US company Jazz Pharmaceuticals for use in licensed anti-epilepsy drugs – has blamed the problem on the Seasonal Workers’ Pilot scheme.

Originally launched in 2019 to deal with the end of free movement with the EU, up to 30,000 overseas workers will be permitted to travel to the UK this year for up to six months to help reap the 2021 harvest.

But the pilot scheme only covers farming businesses growing food – shutting out cannabis cultivators.

Very Challenging Year

Mr Watson told the Financial Times: “It is disappointing that we have had a year that has been very challenging due to the worker shortages at our glasshouses. 

“Our seasonal colleagues live on site for the growing and harvesting periods and we have historically employed people from both the UK and countries across Europe. The restrictions to the pilot this year have meant we have struggled to recruit people.”

Mr Watson has urged the UK Government to extend the scheme to non-edible crops.

He told the FT: “We would like a long-term commitment from the government that the labour demand for pharmaceutical growing is treated in the same way as growing for food.” 

British Sugar is the nation’s sole producer of sugar from sugar beet. It began growing medicinal cannabis in 2016 for GW Pharmaceuticals – which was bought by Jazz Pharmaceuticals in May this year in a deal said to be worth £7.2bn – under licence from the Home Office.

British Sugar now grows hundreds of thousands of plants in a 45-acre glasshouse once filled with tomatoes, using the heat and carbon dioxide that is generated by sugar production at its nearby factory.

The plants have high levels of cannabidiol – or CBD – and very little THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive element of cannabis. It makes them perfect for approved and regulated epilepsy drugs.

Jazz Pharmaceuticals’ acquisition of GW Pharmaceuticals has made it the only company currently working at a commercial scale to produce licensed cannabis-related drugs in the UK including Sativex and Epidyolex (Epidiolex in the US).

The company has acknowledged the labour shortage problem but told the FT it had still been able to meet its obligations.

No Impact On Output

Chris Tovey, chief operating officer for Jazz Pharmaceuticals in the UK, said: “While our growing partners have experienced some variation in seasonal worker availability this year, this has not impacted on our production or output.”

Policy surrounding the UK’s import and export of medical cannabis products has been consistently called into question in recent years. 

Despite GW/JAZZ making it the largest exporter of medical cannabis in the world, the vast majority of medical cannabis products available for prescription in the UK are imported from abroad.

A Government taskforce led by former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP, last week issued a report recommending that the licensing of medical cannabis be moved to The Department of Health and Social Care from the Home Office, to encourage the growth of the estimated £1bn sector post-Brexit.

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