EU Member Nations Still Angling About Limiting Hemp THC

thc hemp EU

By Oliver Bennett, Special Contributor to New Frontier Data

For several years, despite legalization and reform legislation. the percentage of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — commonly understood as the psychoactive component of cannabis and inherent to hemp, CBD, and other cannabis products — has been stuck in something of a confusing regulatory purgatory. Every European country  respectively limits THC content (e.g., ranging from 0.0% in France, to 0.2% in the U.K., and 0.6% in Italy), and across the continent allowable THC tends to stand around 0.3% or below – the historic premise being that it should not be possible for people using freely available hemp and CBD products to gain any narcotic effects from doing so.

But change is afoot: In the Czech Republic, a recent bill aims to establish its THC limit for industrial hemp at 1.0% effective in January 2022.

That might put the Czech Republic in potentially conflict with the stance of the EU, to which it belongs among 27 member states. While the Czech Republic already enjoys liberal cannabis laws with decriminalised personal possession, it might be argued that the country is following the example of non-EU Switzerland, where rules limiting open-market products to 1.0% THC have met with great success.  Meanwhile, a new report in the U.K. suggests that that country (the biggest consumer of CBD in Europe) adopt a rise to 1.0%.

Legislation is beginning to iron out the uneven THC limits. Last year, the EU raised the THC cap for hemp to 0.3% from 0.2%, effective in 2023. Daniel Kruse of the European Industrial Hemp Association (EIHA) welcomed the change, saying that the Parliament’s decision “reflects a renewed approach of our society to this wonderful plant that has the potential of decarbonising many different manufacturing sectors and provide farmers with a consistent and green source of revenues.”

Since the European Parliament also voted to establish marketing standards for hemp, the Czech Republic is ahead of the curve, and will likely revive a global movement to establish 1.0% THC standard for hemp.

European THC limits for hemp were established around 0.5% in 1984, before pressure downward to 0.3%, and finally in 1999 to  0.2% following research. While the global average has wavered around 0.2% or 0.3%, those ceilings have long been deemed arbitrary in the industry, according to New Frontier Data hemp segment analyst Trevor Yahn-Grode,  and took their rationales  from an outdated understanding of cannabis.

“The very definition of hemp is based on the THC limit,” says Yahn-Grode. “Below 0.3% is typically said to be ‘hemp’ while above [that] is said to be ‘marijuana’.” Adding to the categorical mix is the distinction between cannabis sativa and cannabis indica – the former strain non-intoxicating, and the latter strain marked by higher THC content.

Nevertheless, adds Yahn-Grode, the more learned about cannabis and its entourage effects, the less clear it all becomes. “Research is in a very opaque and grey place right now, and boundaries between medical and hemp and CBD are becoming increasingly blurred,” he says.

There are more than 113 different cannabinoids, and the list keeps growing; in the increasingly complex picture, old THC limits are not easily applicable.

Increasingly, it is surmised that a move to a widely observed, 1.0% classification would be more fair to farmers, who are often penalised for unwittingly growing higher-THC plants. Lower limits put farmers at a disadvantage — not just for those growing hemp for industrial uses, but also for CBD producers, as CBD levels are believed to rise accordingly to THC levels. Plus, lower limits restrict research into products associated with higher THC and CBD strains.

“In the U.S., if a farmer’s crop tests ‘hot’ – that is, over 0.5% – they have to destroy their crop with no financial compensation,” says Yahn-Grode.

While a case could be made for caution involving ingestible CBD products, such restrictions are not necessary for hemp used in industries such as construction or automotive parts. “It puts a burden on farmers that doesn’t need to exist,” says Yahn-Grode.

The hemp industry, then, is moving towards a 1% classification for THC. The higher level is expected to provide farmers with some latitude, so that if their cannabis becomes hot, it need not be destroyed. It would also impact the legal marketing of CBD-based extracts as foods, following the EU’s guidance on CBD last year in ruling in a French case that CBD should not be considered a narcotic. More liberal allowable percentages of THC might have other knock-on effects, designing out discrepancies in an immature market with better testing. One analysis of over-the-counter CBD found huge differences, wherein the advertised CBD content was 4.5%, but the actual mean measured CBD content of products stood at 3.2%.

Overall, as Kruse added, it “will give [Europe] a chance to gain momentum and catch up with the world.” The EIHA believes that 0.3% THC will make no difference to hemp with 0.2% THC, but will be far better for producers. For now, eyes are trained on the Czechs, to see whether their initiative sails forward or gets knocked back.