Noteworthy Facts About Legal CBD And The Current State Of The Law On Hemp And Cannabis In The UK

Is CBD Legal?

Cannabidiol, commonly referred to by its abbreviation, CBD, is quickly rising in popularity in the United Kingdom.  According to a 2019 national survey, 8–11% of adults, which equates to 4–6 million people, had used a CBD product in the last year.

With many users touting its therapeutic properties, understanding the legal status of CBD can be confusing. Is it a medicinal or recreational product?

As more information comes to light about the benefits of this natural hemp product, the UK continues to evaluate the legality of CBD consumption. Its strict CBD laws have been influenced by the global nature of cannabis and hemp history. Interestingly, the British Empire’s power can be attributed to the expansion of the hemp crop across its imperial territories.

Despite the industrial and medicinal purposes of cannabis and hemp-derived products, the UK is wary of their psychoactive content. However, since CBD is not intoxicating, the government has leaned towards regulation rather than prohibition of the substance.

Here we explore the history and legality of CBD to understand its legal classification in the UK.

History of CBD law in the UK

People have cultivated the Cannabis sativa plant for thousands of years for its medicinal and spiritual properties.

The unique compounds that lend these properties are known as cannabinoids. Those most prominent in the cannabis plant are cannabidiol (CBD) and Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), though there are over 100 others.

Hemp and marijuana are varieties of cannabis, but hemp is cultivated for its strong fibres and low THC content.

Because THC is psychoactive, the governments of the UK and other nations have limited and regulated the cultivation and consumption of products derived from cannabis.

The British government regulates the hemp industry by only allowing the cultivation of plants containing less than 0.2% Delta-9 THC. In contrast, the US government requires hemp plants to contain less than 0.3% Delta-9 THC.

When considering ‘Is CBD Legal in the UK in 2021?’ an overview of the historic global history of hemp and cannabis over the last few centuries is valuable.

Cannabis and Hemp regulations prior to the 21st Century

Hemp was an essential crop cultivated by the British Empire. As the Empire’s power and control spread over Southeast Asia, tax collection on hemp was introduced in 1793.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Americans began creating medicinal cannabis products. In the 1840s, cannabis gained global notoriety for its medicinal benefits. Word of cannabis’ medicinal uses spread to Queen Victoria, who used it to manage menstrual pain.

At the end of the century, in 1894, the British government’s Indian Hemp Commission reaffirmed the 1824 findings that moderate cannabis use is not harmful.

1900 to 1950

With the Royal Commission’s 1901 conclusion that cannabis did not have detrimental health effects and should not be prohibited, it appeared that the UK government was in favour of cannabis products at the start of the 20th Century.

That said, changing global attitudes towards cannabis ultimately affected those of the UK government.

In 1925, the League of Nations held the Geneva International Convention on Narcotics. Under the suggestion of Egypt and Turkey, cannabis was added to the convention’s list of narcotics. This global designation had national impacts on cannabis in the UK. Britain followed suit by passing the 1928 Dangerous Drugs Act, which banned the recreational use of cannabis.

1950 to 1975

From 1950 to 1975, the UK doubled down on cannabis prosecutions. Although white and Black people were prosecuted for cannabis, Black people were (and still are) racially targeted for drug possession.

The 1960s were further characterised by global trends towards the prohibition of cannabis, with the UK similarly prohibiting the substance.

In 1961, cannabis was put into the same category of assumed harmfulness as opiates and cocaine by the United Nations during their Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs. In this category, it was considered to have addictive properties and be a public health risk. A few years later, the UK passed the 1965 Dangerous Drugs Act, which further criminalised cannabis across the nation.

Attitudes towards cannabis began to change by the end of the 1960s. Despite the UK government’s public facade of cannabis contempt, it was funding research about cannabis’ medicinal properties in private.

In 1968, a government committee found that cannabis consumption in moderation had no harmful effects. Nevertheless, three years later, the government doubled back on this finding and classified cannabis as a Class B drug.

Under this new legislation, titled the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, cannabis was illegal to grow, possess, or supply. Nevertheless, despite this ban on recreational cannabis usage, fibre from the stalks and seeds of cannabis continued to be researched for medical uses.

1975 to 2000

The following 25 years saw an even greater divide in the conflicting attitudes toward cannabis prohibition and regulation.

In 1979, the UK Advisory Council seemed to have a positive attitude towards cannabis. They proposed changing cannabis to a Class C drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act as well as changing penalties for cannabis possession. However, the newly-elected Conservative government clapped back in 1981, declaring that they would never legalise or decriminalise cannabis.

In spite of this, a little over ten years later, hemp farms began to grow cannabis with extremely low THC with licences from the European Economic Community (EEC). Still, the UK government continued to penalise cannabis use, with over 72,000 people committing cannabis offences in 1994.

Meanwhile, in the US, voters in California passed Proposition 215, which allowed for the sale and medical use of marijuana for patients with serious diseases. This legislation stood in contrast to US federal laws, which classified marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, thus prohibiting its possession.

In 1997, subsequent to this victory for cannabis in California, the Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics (ACT) advocated for the legalisation of cannabis for medical use in the UK by advertising in the national press.

2000 to present

In the 2000s, positive research on cannabis for medicinal purposes affected both national and global perceptions of its consumption.

Canada became one of the first countries to legalise medical marijuana for qualifying patients in 2003. However, the UK government reclassified cannabis from a Class B to a Class C drug the following year, meaning it was illegal to possess, but you could not be arrested for it.

By 2005, the British company GW Pharmaceuticals had developed the world’s first cannabis-derived medicine, Sativex, which was licensed for use in Canada. Because of these medical discoveries, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs asked for a re-examination on scientific evidence linking cannabis use with mental health issues and at-risk adolescents.

In modern times, the UK government has leaned towards regulation in preference to the prohibition of cannabis. Ultimately, it has created legislation demonstrating it believes the medicinal properties of cannabis products outweigh its psychoactive effects.

Current CBD law in the UK

CBD is a highly-regulated product in the UK. Currently, CBD products are not considered medicinal products unless they have special product licensing. Instead, CBD products are considered novel foods if consumed or cosmetics if applied to the skin.

Here we outline the present status of CBD legality in the UK and the agencies in charge of its regulation.

Is CBD considered a medicinal product?

UK cannabis legislation is specific about how CBD products should be classified.

The UK Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) issued statements regarding CBD as a medicine in May of 2016. It believes that CBD can be considered a medicine in certain circumstances. Although, to be legally sold and used for medical purposes, medicinal products must have a product licence.

In November of 2016, the MHRA issued another statement about CBD, reaffirming their concern for patient safety. They asked companies to withdraw their products from the market because they were concerned that individuals were using CBD products to manage the symptoms of medical conditions.

Before being allowed back on the market, CBD products had to meet the legal requirements of the Human Medicines Regulations 2012. They were assessed to see if they could be classified as medicinal products. Carrying out this assessment did not mean that CBD was a risk to consumers. Rather, its purpose was to verify whether CBD meets the definition of a medicinal product.

Novel Foods

As of January 2019, CBD extract for consumption is considered a novel food.  It appears on a list with other foods that don’t have a history of consumption by UK citizens in the UK or European Union (EU) before May 1997. Other foods on the list include chia seeds, cholesterol-reducing spreads, and bread processed with ultraviolet light to increase its Vitamin D levels.

The European Commission, which added CBD extracts to its Novel Foods Catalogue, does not have legal status and alternately uses the Catalogue to show legal decisions made about novel foods. The inclusion of CBD extracts on this list demonstrates that CBD extract and isolate products are considered legally novel foods.

Due to the status of CBD extracts as a novel food, companies selling them must apply for authorisation through the Food Standards Agency.

What is CBD?

CBD is a chemical compound known as a cannabinoid. It’s not intoxicating, so it does not create a cerebral ‘high’. Instead, it is highly regarded for its holistic, therapeutic properties. And if you’re wondering ‘Can I become addicted to CBD?’ the answer is no.

Cannabinoids are produced by the cannabis plant, which contains over 100 known phytocannabinoids. Laboratories can also synthesise cannabinoids and replicate their properties.

Every mammalian body, including humans, has its own endocannabinoid system (ECS). It produces cannabinoids that bind with cannabinoid receptors along with the nervous system. Despite the lack of significant research about the ECS, scientists think it influences homeostasis, suggesting it impacts mood, memory, appetite, and sleep.

Facts about legal CBD

There is research to suggest that cannabinoids like CBD may have favourable medicinal benefits. In fact, CBD’s potential pharmacological effects may work better than opioids or over-the-counter pain remedies at reducing pain.

Two small studies have suggested that CBD may contain anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, making it a possible pain relief solution. In these studies, scientists evaluated CBD’s influence on the nervous systems of rodents.

As humans and rodents each have an ECS, the research suggests that CBD might be the link between the ECS and the nervous system.

In addition, a recent 2020 study demonstrated that the topical application of CBD oil might be beneficial in reducing neuropathy in humans.

Overall, research on CBD has demonstrated the cannabinoid’s potential to reduce pain and inflammation. It is critical to note that CBD is not considered a medicinal product unless explicitly designated as such.

Different types of CBD products

Following extraction, cannabinoids can be mixed into food products for consumption or as topical products. Because there is not much research about CBD extracts, they are classified as novel foods or cosmetics.

There is a wide range of methods to consume CBD.  Just like THC, CBD flowers can be smoked or vaped. With inhalation, the effects of CBD are felt within minutes and can last up to three hours.

For more direct relief, CBD-infused topical products can be rubbed directly onto the site of pain. The cannabinoids permeate the skin and bind to cannabinoid receptors in the muscles and joints. With topicals, cannabinoids are delivered directly to the target area.

Likewise, CBD ‘edibles’ are popular and may include:

  • baked goods
  • beverages
  • tinctures or drops
  • capsules
  • oils

No matter their method of consumption, CBD users need not worry about feeling intoxicated or paranoid with CBD products, which is a significant benefit for those seeking the medicinal properties of cannabis.

Is legal CBD the same as medical cannabis?

No, although both cannabis related, they are two different products that differ in legality, and effects.

CBD is a cannabis product, whereas medical cannabis is marijuana recommended by a doctor to treat a medical condition.

CBD and the THC in medical cannabis are chemically-similar to the body’s naturally-occurring endocannabinoids. Consequently, they can interact with the cannabinoid receptors of the ECS.

Certain conditions may be improved by consuming these cannabinoids, which aid in the regulatory processes of our nervous systems. The interaction between cannabinoids and their receptors affects the release of neurotransmitters, which relay messages between cells. They are also involved in the regulation of pain, immune function, sleep, and stress.

THC, the most well-known cannabinoid found in the Cannabis sativa plant, is responsible for the high sensation when consuming cannabis. THC’s psychoactive effects are due to its double-bonded chemical structure.

Although CBD is considered psychoactive, it isn’t intoxicating, and doesn’t produce a high sensation in the same way as THC. The reason is that THC binds to CB1 receptors, while CBD weakly, if at all.

CBD has helped people manage uncomfortable pain symptoms without the intense psychoactivity of Delta-9 THC. Research suggests CBD may alleviate pain, nausea, and inflammation.

CBD and THC are extracted from the cannabis plant in different ways. While Delta-9 THC is extracted from the buds and leaves of the cannabis plant, CBD is extracted from hemp fibres. The UK considers cannabis to be ‘hemp’ if cultivated to contain less than 0.2% Delta-9 THC.

Is it Legal to travel with CBD?

Yes, you can travel within and to the UK with CBD legally, providing it follows customs regulations and UK law.

However, international destinations have different legal requirements, customs rules and restrictions, which you must consider when travelling with CBD.

Will CBD show up on a drug test?

CBD will not show up on a drug test as they are typically testing for THC. In the UK, CBD contains only trace THC, which is unlikely to test positive on a drug test.

Even if there are trace amounts of THC in the CBD product being consumed, the levels are most likely too low to show up on a test. People must be wary of consuming unregulated CBD oils, as these may contain higher THC levels.

The takeaway on CBD legality in the UK

Throughout the history of the British Empire, its government has struggled with the decision to regulate or prohibit cannabis products. Despite hemp’s early profitability as a global crop, lawmakers were concerned about its psychoactive content.

The government demonstrated its hesitancy towards cannabis through prohibitive legislation throughout the 21st Century while at the same time funding projects that examined its medicinal properties.

Canadian and American attitudes and cannabis legislation in the 1990s and early 2000s affected those of the UK. However, with the advent of Proposition 215 and the legalisation of the medicine Sativex, cannabis had gained global recognition for its medicinal properties.

With the discovery of CBD extraction, the UK has reached a critical moment in the history of CBD legality. Because the government has chosen regulation of CBD over total prohibition, there are many laws necessary to ensure these products do not contain intoxicating THC.

As more research is conducted on CBD, the UK will most likely have to re-evaluate CBD’s current legal status as a novel food product.

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