CBD oil has entered the mainstream in many different forms in recent years, and the industry is continuing to grow at exponential rates – bringing with it both dedicated advocates and absolute sceptics. When you’re not reading articles about the benefits of CBD oil in glossy magazines, you’ll find news features about CBD epilepsy medication being confiscated. It’s no surprise that the sheer volume of contradictory content can leave us all feeling a little confused. But where to start… For many, the first question they face tends to be, “Is CBD oil legal in the UK?”
UK cannabis laws
Cannabis was made illegal in the UK in 1928 as an addition to the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920. Still today, it’s regarded as a Class B drug. So why, if cannabis is illegal, can we find cannabis oil in shops such as Holland and Barrett? Also known as cannabidiol, CBD is one of many compounds in the cannabis plant. Unlike THC, the ingredient that’s responsible for getting cannabis users high, CBD has no psychoactive effect. As CBD (cannabidiol) is only one of the 119 chemical compounds found in the marijuana plant, the laws around it aren’t clear.
In simple terms, CBD is legal in the UK as long as it doesn’t contain THC, the main psychoactive substance found in cannabis. THC is the part of cannabis that produces a high, and is a controlled substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. CBD oils that are made from hemp (with less than 0.2% THC) are legal to sell in the UK as long as they’re not advertised as having any medical benefits.
To sell or prescribe CBD oil as a medicine, products must have legitimate medical licensing from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). As a result, many hemp-based CBD products are advertised as having nutritional benefits rather than medicinal. These are the products we find on the shelves in health food shops and specialist stores.
On November 1 2018, the law changed. The Government announced that specialist doctors can legally prescribe cannabis-based medicines with THC content more than 0.2% when they agree that their patients could benefit. According to the Home Office, the law passed after Home Secretary Sajid Javid called for “an urgent review of cannabis-based medicinal products” and “accepted recommendations that followed from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) and the UK’s Chief Medical Adviser.”
Javid added: “Having been moved by heart-breaking cases involving sick children, it was important to me that we took swift action to help those who can benefit from medicinal cannabis. We have now delivered on our promise and specialist doctors will have the option to prescribe these products where there is a real need.”
Campaigners and parents of children with serious conditions that can be helped by CBD are unsatisfied with the implementation of prescribed medicinal cannabidiol. Many state that there are obstacles to overcome when trying to secure a legal prescription, and specialists are wary of handing out prescriptions. The NHS states: “Very few people in England are likely to get a prescription for medical cannabis.” They list the following conditions for likely prescriptions:
- Children and adults with rare, severe forms of epilepsy
- Adults with vomiting or nausea caused by chemotherapy
- People with muscle stiffness and spasms caused by multiple sclerosis (MS)
Prescriptions will only be given out when other treatments have been ruled out.
Is it legal to produce CBD in the UK?
For those looking to break into the CBD business, it’s not legally straightforward to get a licence and there are a lot of hurdles still to overcome. It is still illegal to grow your own cannabis or hemp in the UK, and CBD producers must receive a licence and permission from the UK Home Office to do so. For the CBD itself to be legal, the CBD must be extracted from an industrial-grade hemp strain that’s been approved by the EU.
Compared to other countries, the UK has tighter laws regarding elements you can extract from the hemp crops. The Guardian reported that British hemp farmers “face serious commercial disadvantage as CBD may be legally extracted only from the stem and leaves of hemp crops, not from the flower, where the cannabinoids are produced in greatest profusion.” This means that most CBD sold in the UK is imported. Despite CBD flowers being illegal, they’re being openly sold online, leading to even more confusion for consumers in relation to the law. There appears to be a grey area and misunderstanding around the guidelines of hemp cultivation. Many assume that when someone has a license to grow industrial hemp, they can use that whole plant. Unfortunately, this is not the case – the flowers and leaves of the hemp plant cannot be harvested, processed or sold.
According to the Home Office, hemp flowers and leaves come under the same legal status as cannabis. “Home Office policy provides that licences may be issued for the cultivation of cannabis plants with a low tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content for the production of hemp fibre for industrial purposes or the obtaining of seeds which are then pressed for their oil. For both of these uses, licences are granted to enable the use of non-controlled parts of the plant (i.e. seeds and fibre/ mature stalk only).”
Due to the booming market for CBD and lawmakers trying to keep up with its growth and demand, regulation is still lax. Consumers need to be aware of the businesses only cashing in on this blazing trend. The Centre for Medicinal Cannabis (CMC) found that more than half of the popular high-street CBD oils sold, do not contain the level of CBD promised on the label. Consumers need to pay considerable attention to what is legal and what they are buying.