The Legal Status of CBD in the UK (and beyond)

Thomas L
The Legal Status of CBD in the UK (and beyond)

The legal status of CBD varies from country to country, and often regulations aren’t black and white because it’s still a rapidly developing market. Still, in the UK, more than 4 million people have already tried CBD products as of 2019 according to a Dynata survey, and sales are estimated to reach around £1 billion by 2025. CBD is hardly a quick fad—it could potentially trump the size of the entire local health supplement market in a year. In response to this, CBD regulations in the UK have been adjusting quickly, with modifications happening at least every year at this point.

CBD has also given rise to a complex range of products, including pure extracts, tinctures, vape juice, medicine for epilepsy, and pet supplements. Not all CBD is the same, either, as we’ll explain, and where it comes from matters.

With these subtleties in mind, let’s break down what the current regulations are for CBD in the UK:

CBD from Hemp vs Marijuana

The most important distinction you can make with CBD is whether it comes from hemp or marijuana.

Essentially, CBD (cannabidiol) is a compound from the cannabis plant. There are two types of cannabis plants: hemp and marijuana. Although they differ a bit in their appearance and what kind of environment they grow in, the most crucial distinction between them is their chemical makeup.

Marijuana has high levels (5% to 30%) of a compound called THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), while hemp only has a maximum of 0.3%. THC is the psychoactive compound in marijuana, so it’s mainly responsible for getting people high. Because the THC level in hemp is so low to the point of being negligible, it won’t have the same funky effects as marijuana. For this reason, most countries are much stricter with marijuana, mostly banning it for recreational use, while they’re much more lenient with hemp. 

CBD can come from either marijuana or hemp. The short answer to CBD’s legal status is that CBD is typically legal in the UK as long as it’s derived from hemp, with less than 0.2% THC content. This comes with other conditions such as:

  • The hemp plant where it came from must be EU-approved for industrial use
  • The THC must not be easily extracted from it

One caveat that sellers should be aware of is that the 0.2% THC max limit only applies to CBD that’s extracted through cold pressing of hemp seeds. If it’s extracted through a carbon dioxide or solvent extraction method, then the THC levels must be at zero once tested by an accredited lab.

Overall, hemp-derived CBD is not a controlled substance in the UK. Most products derived from hemp are 100% legal. You can actually find hemp extract as an ingredient in food and cosmetics! In contrast, marijuana remains illegal outside of specific medical cases.

Other Regulations

CBD as Medicine

Most CBD products in the market are branded as food supplements rather than medical products. As stated by the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency), any CBD product advertised as medicine would have to be licensed first. Licensing is extremely controlled, so very few are accepted. 

However, the MHRA does acknowledge that CBD has potential medical applications. Sativex is the first drug in the UK that has high amounts of both CBD and THC. In 2015, doctors were allowed to prescribe it for multiple sclerosis, but only once they’ve presented the individual case to a panel. 

Just recently, in November 2019, medical regulations became more fluid as doctors in England, Scotland, and Wales can now prescribe cannabis-based medicine without going through a panel. While this is a step closer to full medical legalisation of CBD, it’s still quite restricted as doctors can only resort to this in very restricted and severe situations, such as when other medicines aren’t working.

Novel Food 

One directive that’s hot on the radar of the CBD industry is the EU’s declaration of Novel Foods. These are foods that haven’t been consumed much by people in the EU before May 15, 1997, and CBD-infused foods and drinks are included. Novel foods in the UK must receive a license from the EU before even being sold, which can be a time-consuming process. Considering that most CBD products are classified as food, there is an ongoing debate about this, and the UK hasn’t strictly enforced it yet.

Cultivation and Selling

Although hemp-derived CBD can be sold legally in the UK, you can’t grow hemp (or cannabis) on your own. The UK only allows hemp cultivation for industrial use, and your business has to receive a license from the Home Office.

There are also further regulations for selling CBD products. Aside from not classifying these as medicine while unlicensed, product information such as ingredients, CBD content, and manufacturer details should be stated clearly on the label.

A Global Perspective 

CBD regulations are wildly different across countries. Europe is the most open to CBD, followed by South and North America and Africa. Most countries in Asia and the Middle East ban CBD outside of medical use. 

Europe has been the pioneer, with countries like Germany and Luxembourg being the first in the world to legalise CBD (and cannabis). The general trend in Europe is that CBD is fine as long as its THC content remains below 0.2%. Some countries have gone beyond that and made CBD much more available, while others like France and Switzerland have vaguer laws and Slovakia considers it illegal.

South America is also relatively CBD-ready. Home-growing is already legal in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and other countries. In particular, Colombia and Mexico show a lot of potential, with CBD products allowed as long as they’re licensed and their THC level is less than 1%.

In the US, CBD regulations have a lot in common with the UK. CBD must also be made from industrial hemp by a licensed producer, but its maximum THC content is higher at 0.3%. Regulations, though, get even more complicated here because each state can have conflicting laws. On the other hand, CBD can only be purchased in Canada as long as it’s from a regulated store or producer and you have a medical prescription.

Just this 2019, South Africa has legalised CBD, although its maximum THC levels are the tightest so far at 0.0001%. For the rest of Africa, CBD remains illegal. Asia also has a mostly conservative stance towards CBD. Surprisingly, CBD is legal in Japan (but cannabis isn’t), while Thailand requires CBD to have less than 0.01% THC and South Korea only allows it for controlled medical purposes.

The Middle East is even stricter, with many countries like Saudi Arabia enforcing a death penalty if you’re caught having CBD. Even Israel, which is at the cutting edge of CBD research and production, decriminalized all hemp-extracted products, including CBD, in 2018.

Shifting CBD Regulations

CBD regulations can be complex, to stay the least, so it’s best to stay updated because more industry and legal updates for the UK will be coming up over the next year. As part of the EU, the UK’s regulations on CBD are more relaxed than average compared to the rest of the world. Still, forming a strong regulatory system around CBD anywhere in the world is a long-term process because laws must juggle keeping pace with research, maintaining quality control, and weighing public health needs.

How the regulations in Western countries will change in the coming years will define the global CBD market and may also set in motion a trend of relaxing prohibition on marijuana, for medical and, eventually, recreational purposes. The future of CBD is uncertain at the moment, but with the right evidence based policies, this could be the beginning of a fantastic new industry in the UK.

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