There’s a good chance you’ve heard something about CBD. This natural substance has quickly grown into one of the most popular trends in health and wellness.
CBD is perfectly legal in the UK and you can find it in many forms, including CBD oil, capsules, gummies, creams, and vaping products.
However, there are some important limitations to CBD’s legal status. On top of that, regulations are constantly evolving in both the UK and the rest of Europe as government health authorities contend with the meteoric rise of CBD.
That’s why it helps to understand exactly what CBD is, where it comes from, and how it’s clashing with the UK’s cannabis laws. Here’s what you need to know to understand the legality of CBD in the UK.
What is CBD?
Cannabidiol, or CBD for short, is a non-psychotropic cannabinoid from cannabis. Cannabinoids are the main compounds responsible for the plant’s health effects.
Unlike THC, the cannabinoid most people have heard of, CBD doesn’t make you high.
As such, you can use CBD for its potential health benefits without worrying about any mild-altering side effects. CBD is usually sourced from hemp, a variety of cannabis that contains 0.2% or less THC. This small amount is not enough to cause intoxication.
That makes it different from regular cannabis plants (also known as marijuana), which contain over 0.2% THC and are considered illegal in most parts of the world, including the UK.
Although CBD can be sold in many types of products, its most popular form is CBD oil. That’s why you’ll often see “CBD” and “CBD oil” used interchangeably.
CBD oil products like CBD drops consist of CBD-rich hemp extract dissolved in olive oil, coconut MCT oil, or another plant-based oil. It’s used by placing the desired number of drops under your tongue and holding it to allow the CBD to absorb directly into your blood vessels.
According to survey data from 2019, as many as 6 million Brits — 11 per cent of the population — have used CBD products to support their overall health and wellness.
Is CBD Legal in the UK?
Unlike THC, CBD is not on Britain’s controlled substances list. As such, CBD is fully legal in the UK. This isn’t surprising because CBD doesn’t have any mind-altering effects, so the Home Office has no reason to restrict its use.
However, there are three key stipulations to keep in mind:
- CBD products cannot contain more than 1 mg of THC per container
- CBD products can only be derived from EU-approved strains of industrial hemp, which contain no more than 0.2% of THC
- CBD products must be produced by manufacturers who have succesfully applied for novel foods authorisation from the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) by March 31, 2021.
These regulations have made it more difficult to offer CBD products in the UK. That’s why the British CBD industry has been asking government authorities for an updated set of guidelines.
Let’s explore these stipulations in more detail.
CBD as a Novel Food
Although CBD is legal in the UK, there is yet another challenge to be aware of. The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) announced in February 2020 that it will follow in the footsteps of the European Union by treating CBD as a novel food.
By the EU’s definition, a novel food is a “food that had not been consumed to a significant degree by humans in the EU before 15 May 1997, when the first Regulation on novel food came into force.”
The idea behind this concept is to make sure that any new food items are safe for consumers and come with proper labelling.
Due to this change, CBD product manufacturers will have to submit a novel food authorisation application before they can sell any CBD product in the UK, including oils, capsules, gummies, drinks, and any other ingestible preparation.
For products that are already being sold, this application must be submitted by March 31, 2021, otherwise, they will be taken off the shelves.
Although this change does not make CBD products illegal, it does place a great financial and regulatory burden on CBD manufacturers.
Treating CBD as a novel food has garnered both positive and negative responses across the industry.
Some welcome it as a way to make CBD products safer and more likely to contain accurate levels of CBD, while others see it as yet another way to stifle the growth of the UK’s CBD market.
In any case, the FSA defended its decision by stating that “the actions that we’re taking today are a pragmatic and proportionate step in balancing the protection of public health with consumer choice. It’s now up to the industry to supply this information so that the public can be reassured that CBD is safe and what it says it is.”
Is CBD Flower Legal in the UK?
Also known as bud, CBD flower refers to the CBD-rich flowers of the hemp plant. CBD flower can be smoked, used to make tea, and utilised in other ways.
It’s the most economic way to get CBD and other beneficial hemp compounds because they tend to be concentrated in the flowers.
However, CBD flower is not legal in the UK. That’s because the flowers of any cannabis variety — hemp or marijuana — are considered to be a part of cannabis, which became a controlled drug in the UK following the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.
As a result, it’s currently illegal to grow hemp for its flowers or to sell or smoke CBD flower in the UK. Yet, this hasn’t stopped dozens of businesses from selling CBD flower online and in shops across the country by claiming that it’s derived from European hemp.
This suggests that the government is not enforcing the law very strongly, probably due to the archaic nature of the 1971 law. The bottom line is that although CBD flower is considered illegal in the UK, the laws are confusing, outdated, and not consistently enforced.
Is it Legal to Grow Hemp for CBD extraction in the UK?
It’s legal to grow hemp in the UK if you obtain the proper licence from the UK Home Office. The only problem is that this hemp can only be used to produce fibre or to grow seeds to make hemp seed oil, which doesn’t contain any CBD or other cannabinoids.
Hemp cannot be grown to make CBD products because its flowers — the part of the cannabis plant that contains most of the CBD and other cannabinoids — are illegal.
In fact, British farmers that do have the proper license to grow hemp must destroy the flowers after they harvest the plant.
The limits of hemp cultivation laws in the UK were demonstrated by a recent story about a pair of Oxfordshire farmers who had to destroy 40 acres of hemp after the Home Office warned them that they cannot use it to make CBD oil.
The farmers argued that what they were doing was perfectly legal since the hemp contained 0.2% or less of THC. However, the Home Office disagreed, since it doesn’t allow for the cultivation of hemp flowers to make CBD products.
Due to this stipulation, virtually all of the CBD oils and other CBD products offered on the British market are sourced from hemp cultivated in EU countries.
This law is clearly outdated because it was meant to stop people from growing marijuana for recreational use but it also indiscriminately prevents British farmers from growing hemp to make non-intoxicating CBD products.
There is, however, one interesting exception to this rule. The company Jersey Hemp, which operates on the island of Jersey, acquired a license to grow hemp flowers for CBD oil in 2019.
Although Jersey is a British Crown dependency and not technically part of Great Britain, this is still positive news for the British hemp industry.
THC Limit in CBD Products
It’s important to understand the precise laws around THC content in CBD products. As we highlighted above, THC is a controlled substance. However, the UK Home Office allows the sale of CBD products derived from approved varieties hemp grown in Europe.
By definition, this hemp can contain 0.2% or less of THC. However, there is also the second rule that limits the THC content of CBD products to 1 mg per container.
This can be problematic because THC levels in hemp are usually much higher than 1 mg. Because of this rule, most CBD companies have to further refine their products to remove most or all of THC before selling them on the British market.
More importantly, they have to test their products through a third-party lab to make sure they meet the 1 mg guideline. Yet, there’s currently no law forcing companies to confirm that their CBD products meet this requirement.
Instead, it’s up to individual brands to pay a third-party laboratory to have their products tested for their CBD and THC levels and provide the test results to their customers.
Some companies are simply not having their products tested at all. Also, 1 mg is a relatively small amount that may be difficult to detect.
That’s why many companies are simply deciding to completely remove THC from their hemp-derived CBD products to make sure they don’t run into any legal issues, even if the amount present isn’t enough to cause intoxication.
Marketing CBD: MHRA Regulations
As we noted above, companies cannot make any medical claims about their CBD products.
These rules are regulated by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which controls what companies can say when advertising medicines and other health products.
The MHRA considers CBD products to be a food supplement. Under its guidelines, food supplements cannot be used to treat any medical condition or symptom.
As a result, companies cannot claim that their CBD products help with any disease or symptom. If you ever see a CBD product that claims to alleviate specific symptoms or conditions such as headaches or cancer, you should stay away.
If a company is willing to make such unapproved claims, there’s also a higher chance that their products are low in quality and aren’t tested by a third-party lab.
CBD Legality in the UK: A Changing Landscape
While CBD is completely legal in the UK, we can see that there are some limitations. At the same time, the legal landscape is continually evolving, highlighted by the FSA’s attempts to regulate CBD as a novel food.
It’s quite apparent that the laws governing cannabis in the UK are outdated and were not made with hemp-derived CBD products in mind.
For example, the 1 mg of THC per container rule is needlessly restrictive since this is far below the 0.2% maximum THC content of hemp plants.
We can expect to see more changes in the future. One particularly big question currently being debated by the EU’s European Commission is whether CBD should be considered a narcotic.
The negative implications of such a decision would be huge and likely have ramifications for the UK as well.
Still, we don’t know if this verdict will pass. For now, the best thing you can do is purchase CBD products from trusted companies that provide third-party lab test results to confirm their safety and legality.