Europe’s Great THC Debate: Get moving or fall behind

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(Second of 4 parts)

Part 1: Europe’s tough row to hoe: Lack of clarity on CBD, THC

Part 3: Monday, July 2: Europe’s futile efforts to slow marijuana use
Part 4: Thursday, July 5: Demand strong for advice on CBD, startups, technology

If Europe doesn’t move fast to make reasonable rules for THC levels in industrial hemp, we’ll be missing an historic opportunity to maintain our rightful place as the leader of the crop’s revival in the 20th and 21st centuries.

While most European countries follow an EU directive that sets THC limits for hemp at 0.2%, leading hemp nations around the world operate on a generally accepted global standard of 0.3%. And some, increasingly, much higher.

The negative effects of the situation in Europe are evident up and down the value chain – particularly in the food and medicinal hemp sectors.

It begins, appropriately, with the seed. The 0.2% THC “on the field” limit mandated by the EU means European scientists and researchers haven’t been incentivized to develop the high-yield seed varieties and high-CBD strains that are now in great demand. Such strains are absent any significant THC, but can still exceed the 0.2% limit. At the same time, several high-yielding hemp seed varieties, especially from Eastern Europe, are not viable for production under the 0.2% THC constraint.Time, value and money already have been lost.

Back to the Future

To understand how Europe fell behind other countries with respect to the 0.2% THC benchmark, one must take a step back, starting in 1984 when specific THC limit values for European industrial hemp were first set at 0.5%. In 1987 the limit was cut to 0.3% to meet a widely accepted standard set out in the 1970s by the International Association for Plant Taxonomy (IAPT), and based on the highly recognized analysis of American plant scientists Ernest Small and Arthur Cronquist. Their work for the IAPT set 0.3% THC (dry weight of flowers) as the line between Cannabis sativa (non-drug cannabis – “industrial hemp”) and Cannabis indica (drug cannabis – “marijuana”).

Generally looking to Europe as the pacesetter, the 0.3% standard was eventually taken up by Canada and other countries where it remains the legal benchmark today. Meanwhile, Europe took a step backward in 1999 when it further reduced the allowable THC level for hemp to 0.2%. Why?

In 2016 Dusseldorf-based leading industry advisers HempConsult lifted the curtain on the THC situation in Europe by summarizing the background on the EU 0.2% regulation. That paper, in turn, started a fruitful discussion about this issue until, in 2018, the European Industrial Hemp Association (EIHA) took over the agenda and issued its own analysis of the situation in a press release.

Fiber & subsidies

As a nascent hemp industry re-emerged in Europe near the end of the last century, the new stakeholders put the primary emphasis on growing for fiber applications. Anxious to stay in line with EU guidance, and still under the shadow of the Global War on Drugs, growers were forced to comply with the 1999 0.2% THC benchmark if they wanted to grow hemp. It was the only ticket to EU subsidy programs designed to support the crop – which were particularly popular in European hemp fiber production leader France, where the government from time to time sweetened the pot by taking on additional national subsidies.

France was well-positioned to reap the benefits from hemp, having developed low-THC hemp strains throughout the 1980s and 1990s that were feeding into the paper making and construction sectors.

There is ample reason to think that lowering the THC limit for industrial hemp from 0.5% to 0.3% and then to 0.2% was perhaps not initiated, but surely not opposed, by the French hemp breeding industry, .

Boom in foods, CBD

As the 21st Century dawned, more and more companies began to realize hemp’s potential for food (it’s a true superfood), as well as the health benefits inherent in hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD).

Fast forward to 2018 and both sectors are now booming. Hemp foods are ever more present in the mainstream all over the world.

And it is very important to understand that there is not unnecessarily a direct ratio of THC in the green part (flower, leaves) of the plant to the THC contamination on the shell of the seeds.

The upshot: While EU subsidies for hemp are now on the wane, the 0.2% THC limit lingers. If THC limits are lifted, the fiber sector’s dominance will be challenged by hemp strains that exceed (however barely) the EU-mandated 0.2% limit.

Down a narrow hemp path

CBD – which has seen its ups and downs in the gold rush of the past decade – is driving well over half of global hemp industry revenues at present.

The current EU limits are a narrow path – one that is critically retarding development of much, much bigger industries in hemp food and CBD. For the European industry as a whole, it’s a disadvantage in the world markets, and this handicap is sure to intensify.

That’s because as we in the EU now fight for a miniscule adjustment of 0.2% to 0.3% allowable THC, the world moves forward, led, ironically, by non-EU member Switzerland, which allows a full 1.0% THC in industrial hemp in the field. Its recent experience with “Nobacco,” the high-CBD hemp leaves that are being rolled into cigarettes and sold in pouches for roll-your-own, is a striking example of how logical rules can have direct – and positive – economic consequences.

Cashing in on Nobacco

Swiss producers started cashing in on this newest hemp craze last year precisely because their government recognizes the scientifically proven fact that even a full 1.0% THC in hemp food, food supplements or medical products won’t get you high – so that’s the level they’ve set. With no worries about the 0.2% THC limits, producers can process high-CBD hemp strains with no worry. Other countries – Uruguay and Australia, for example – both have started discussions about lifting THC limits to match the Swiss example. Expect other countries to up the ante as well.

To compete, Europe needs change

All over the globe, the hemp food and medical sectors are showing intensive growth as consumers learn of the nutritional and healing benefits of these products. We need the European Union to urgently raise the allowable amounts of THC in hemp from 0.2% to 0.3% THC to underpin European hemp’s current position and to achieve a level playing field in these highly competitive, rapidly advancing world markets.

EU leaders must recognize that without change, European hemp growers and producers will fall yet further behind in this fast-moving industry. And the need for change won’t stop any time soon.

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