Article by Joy Lo Dico, Financial Times
George Thomas does not look like a typical cannabis grower. He wears a smart tweedy jacket and chinos, has a tidy crop of ginger hair and a West Country accent. His vowels fall like apples to the ground.
But in one of the steel barns on the 200 acres of farmland he shares with his father in Somerset, he proudly shows me his crop of a dozen cannabis plants. They are about four weeks old. When flowered and fully grown at 12 weeks, they will not be heading into a reefer but into a laboratory.
Cannabis plants contain tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC as it is commonly known — the stuff that gets you high and that makes it a classified drug. But after a change in UK law in 2018, a handful of landowners have been awarded licences to grow it for medicinal purposes. Thomas has just been granted one.
As well as the indoor nursery, he has also set aside two acres of his family’s farmland, otherwise used to graze sheep, to grow another crop: hemp.
Until recently, this was an uncontroversial crop. “Industrial hemp” is a strain of the cannabis plant which only contains traces of THC so does not have a street value. Its stalks are used for mundane things such as rope, shoes and insulation and its seeds as a sprinkle on porridge. But it contains in abundance another cannabinoid that everyone wants to try: cannabidiol or CBD.
Health and wellness stores now have shelves heaving with little bottles of the stuff, to be taken under the tongue or in capsules and gummies. Although no health benefits can be claimed by the sellers, it is touted online by non-medical professionals as an elixir that “may help” with anything from eczema to arthritis, anxiety to insomnia.
CBD mania hit new heights when Kim Kardashian held a CBD-themed baby shower at her home in California last year, supported by a sponsor, of course. Guests were offered CBD body oils and a CBD-infused chocolate fountain, to be experienced along with a sound bath.
Back on a damp hillside in Somerset, Thomas is gambling that he might be able to turn this hemp crop, and his expertise in its byproducts, into an extraordinary yield for a landowner. “The value of [those two acres] in terms of wheat is about £800. In terms of hemp, its seeds and its fibrous materials — call it two grand. If we could extract the CBD out of it, it would be more like £20,000.”
Not a bad return — but it is still a pipe-dream: UK law will not allow it. Because of its proximity to cannabis as a plant, growing hemp requires a licence from the Home Office, the terms of which say that while it is fine to use the stalks for textiles and seeds for food supplements, its flowers and leaves must remain untouched. And that is where the gold — the CBD — resides.