A recent article in the Guardian Newspaper described cannabidiol (‘CBD’) as “2019’s avocado toast”. Such is its increasing popularity that the market is estimated to be worth £1 billion by 2025, and the number of CBD consumers doubled from 2017-2018.
But what are the effects of CBD? Is the regulation of this novel industry sufficient to counter its risks?
What is CBD?
CBD oil, also known as cannabis oil, is a derivative of the cannabis plant made by mixing liquid hemp with products like olive oil. Unlike other components of cannabis, CBD has extremely low levels of the psychoactive element tetrahydrocannabinol (‘THC’), and so is considered safer for human consumption. CBD oil is currently available in the UK market not only in its pure form, but also as an ingredient in food, infused in skincare, in vape liquid and even in animal treats. Additionally, from 2018 CBD has been used in prescription medication to treat the side effects of chemotherapy, MS and childhood epilepsy.
The Legal Standpoint
Given its origins in the cannabis plant, consumers and producers alike are understandably concerned with the law surrounding CBD. Under UK law, CBD is legal provided that it contains no more than 0.2% THC which, due to its psychoactive effects, is a controlled substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Guidelines from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society also state that CBD cannot be advertised as having medicinal benefits. Despite this, CBD is mostly marketed as a ‘wellness’ product and found in health shops. Whilst complying with guidelines, and often advertising the risks associated with CBD, this may leave consumers confused as to the medicinal qualities of CBD.
Further complexities for suppliers are involved when CBD is sold as a food supplement, as it must also conform to industry standards. The Centre for Medicinal Cannabis (‘CMC’) is critical of the law surrounding CBD, arguing that it is not clear to consumers and, in its present state, only hinders the CBD industry.
However in a recent development the Food Standards Agency (“FSA”) has announced that it accepts a clarification from the EU that CBD extracts are considered “novel foods”. Foods or food ingredients which do not have a history of consumption prior to May 1997 in the EU need to be evaluated and authorised before they can be legally marketed in the EU. We understand that at least one company has submitted an application but the outcome of this may not be known until early next year. The FSA has stated that it is committed to finding a “proportionate way forward” by working with local authorities, business and consumers to clarify how to achieve compliance in the marketplace in a proportionate manner”.
What is the Effect of CBD?
The CBD market is a new one, and research into its effects is ongoing by both private bodies and public organisations like the NHS. There is a general consensus that CBD may act as a pain relief, assist anxiety and combat nausea. It is currently prescribed by the NHS to patients suffering from muscle spasms due to MS and those experiencing side effects of chemotherapy such as nausea. Further trials are being carried out to discover if CBD may have a positive effect upon glaucoma, cancer pains and some side effects of HIV and AIDS.
One matter that is clear is that given the low levels of THC permitted in CBD in the UK, it cannot make a user ‘high’.
The Dangers of False Advertising
NHS guidance on CBD warns users of an array of possible side effects, from hallucinations to fatigue, however perhaps the greatest danger is the risk of inadvertently consuming a more dangerous substance. Many consumers purchase CBD over the internet where, given a lack of regulation and enforcement, there is no certainty that the product received is the one being advertised. An American study in 2017 of 84 samples of CBD discovered that only 26 products contained the stated level of CBD, and 18 had higher THC levels than was claimed. A similar study by CMC found that only 11 of 29 samples were within 10% of their stated CBD level. Such discrepancies could be attributed to a lack of industry standards meaning that products are developed and marketed in different forms.
The main concern of health bodies is that products may contain illegal levels of THC, putting the user at risk of psychosis and addiction. There have been multiple cases, both in the UK and abroad, of consumers being provided with a synthetic cannaboid known as ‘spice’. This highly dangerous substance resulted in the hospitalisation of nine young people in Manchester this year after they purchased what they believed to be cannabis vape liquid. There is a particular concern of the effect that consumption of THC may have on the development of on children’s brains.
A Move to Increased Regulation?
Some of the major concerns of CBD relate to a lack of regulation. It is a common industry trend that as a market increases, so does the potential for unscrupulous suppliers to take advantage of unsuspecting consumers. CMC has called for the industry to regulate itself, but others suggest a more comprehensive regulatory system. A survey by CMC found that CBD users’ main concerns related to clearer labelling, user advice and increased domestic supply. The UK could choose to follow the example of other countries, such as Canada’s Cannabis Act 2018, which introduced a regulated market for non-medical cannabis. Whilst there is no indication of a move to legalise cannabis in the UK, this example could be adapted to create a more open, regulated CBD market. Given preferences for domestic products, an overhaul of the industry could involve the promotion of controlled, domestic CBD growth.
Current CBD Businesses
A business wishing to sell CBD in the current market is operating under limited regulations, but there are still several considerations to be had. From a legal standpoint, businesses should ensure that all CBD products contain no more than 0.2% THC, and that the product’s labelling matches the contents. Suppliers should also take care not to advertise CBD as a medicine. Whilst there is no current legal age restriction on CBD, the Cannabis Trades Association UK advises against selling CBD to children, and businesses would be advised to market the product at adults and treat it as an age restricted product, given the concerns over child consumption. From a liability perspective, it may be wise follow the approach of other providers and advertise the potential risks of CBD as well as its supposed benefits.
CBD is coming (subject to FSA evaluation). Will we see CBD infused Coca Cola? The drinks company has stated that it is “closely watching non-psychoactive CBD. Rumours abound of possible deals between brewers and marijuana producers so expect CBD beers. The potential value of the CBD market is enormous. The regulators may have to play catch up.