Covid and the Rise of the UK CBD Market

Thomas L
Covid and the Rise of the UK CBD Market

CBD use in the UK has skyrocketed. In 2018, only around 250,000 Britons reported using CBD products. This was a time when the local market was largely unregulated, and CBD oil was all lumped under the label of “cannabis oil”.

Fast forward three short years, and the grass has grown immensely greener. The UK’s CBD market is currently the second largest in the world, surpassing other countries where CBD has been legal for longer. In 2020, 8.4 million people had consumed CBD products, or planned to.

Even the global pandemic, which has crippled nearly all markets, has failed to stymie the growth of CBD consumption. If anything, it seemed to have propelled it even further. What are the forces behind the green rush? Are we in a bubble, or is the UK CBD poised to become a global leader?

CBD Has Helped People Cope

It’s been more than a year since the pandemic forced the country into its first quarantine. Since then, we’ve seen unemployment rates soar, businesses fail, and subsequent lockdowns putting people in a prolonged state of stress, uncertainty and fear. 

The effects on the mental and emotional health of the population are unprecedented. Many have turned to alternative methods to help them cope. CBD, which has already started gaining traction prior to COVID-19, found itself propelled into the mainstream further.

Just this past year has found millions picking up a CBD product, many of which are to help cope with the stresses brought about by the pandemic. About 21 percent bought CBD for easing insomnia, while 19 percent were looking to use it for managing anxiety.

A majority were also using CBD alongside conventional medicines, a behaviour that may be driven by the public’s dissatisfaction with the government’s pandemic response and disappointment with the traditional healthcare system.

Marketers Have Had A Longer Reach

Cannabis’ reputation as a harmful drug has been one of the biggest barriers to CBD legalisation, and the main source of stigma. Previously, your average consumer wouldn’t know that CBD oil sold in the UK is legally required to have no THC, or is derived from EU-approved industrial hemp - not the strain that many connect to intoxicating highs or hallucinations.

Much of the murk can be attributed to marketing limitations. CBD-related content is still heavily restricted on major marketplaces like Facebook and Amazon. “An absence of marketing means people often don’t feel they have enough information to buy into the product,” says Olivia Ferdi, co-founder of CBD brand Trip.

But marketers still enjoy relatively more freedom to spread awareness. Loosening restrictions around the world has given the industry a bigger platform to educate the mainstream public. Many brands have taken to organic and influencer marketing in an effort to work around advertising restrictions.

And social is exactly where most of the population has been this past year. With more time on their hands and nowhere to go, over 80 percent of Brits report using apps like Instagram and Facebook more over the past year. This may have naturally put them within reach of CBD brands, many of whom have a digital-only storefront.

Numerous Choices for Consumers

Compulsive buying disorder, prescription-based cannabis medicine for seizures--these were just some of the search results that would come up when one searched for CBD half a decade ago. 

Today, the same search can net you a million results for a myriad of CBD products, from oils to coffee. Pop by Selfridge’s or any lifestyle store on high street and you can probably find a shelf dedicated to cannabidiol items. Sales of CBD-related products have already overtaken Vitamin C by over twice as much.

Purchasing CBD has become exponentially easier for the average consumer, thanks in part to the grey market that has flourished in the absence of clear regulations. “CBD slipped under the net with regulators everywhere in the world. So far, it’s happened sort of by serendipity, rather than through actual deliberate public policy,” says Steve Moore, strategic counsel to the Centre of Medical Cannabis (CMC) and Association for the Cannabinoid Industry (ACI).  

Greater Transparency

In the past, dosage and the actual levels of CBD in a product were impossible to deduce. Even today some consumers unwittingly waste money on products that do not contain the level of CBD they advertise.

Many are put off from trying CBD exactly because of poor quality control. After all, these are products that directly affect our bodies. Stricter restrictions--while currently putting CBD businesses through the wringer for compliance--will prove ultimately beneficial for securing the trust of wary yet curious consumers.

With CBD becoming legal in many countries, it was only a matter of time before the UK’s local market took off. The pandemic has only accelerated its growth, which has already surpassed previous forecasts by more than £100 million. Now, the government is scrabbling to contain the booming market within a working regulatory framework.

The trajectory has already been set, even as the Novel Food regulation slows down new entrants and threatens to take existing sellers off shelves. The market is simply too big to ignore, especially for a government that’s trying to rebuild the economy after Brexit and the pandemic. What’s left to see now is whether the UK's CBD market can capitalise on the momentum to turn a serendipitous boom into a permanent lead.

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