It’s been an incredibly frustrating couple of years for CBD and Cannabis users and producers in the UK. A quick Google will list conflicting information on what is legal and what isn’t in terms of both CBD and cannabis use in the UK. And, unfortunately, much of the information is misleading, conflicting, and often downright inaccurate.
In the UK, there seems to have been a big disconnect between what politicians say and what is actually happening in practice. Let’s look at four examples where the legalities, and what politicians say, has not translated into reality:
1. Medical Cannabis
Medical use of marijuana was legalised on 1 November 2018 following the much-publicised cases of two epileptic children who benefited from the use of cannabis, with both experiencing marked improvements in their conditions. Initially, neither child was allowed to continue their treatment under UK law, with one of the children being hospitalised after his medication was confiscated by authorities.
After this, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt pledged his support for the medical use of cannabis, and on 26 July, the Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced provisions in the law that would allow for the legal use of cannabis products for patients who were deemed to have “exceptional clinical need”. Cannabis was also moved from a Schedule 1 to a Schedule 2 drug.
In theory, there is a license available from the home office to import prescribed medicinal cannabis, but very few of these licenses have been granted, and the number of people who have been able to access medical cannabis has been extremely limited.
Under UK law, GPs are not allowed to prescribe medicines derived from cannabis; they need to come from a specialist consultant. However, most of these specialists are hesitant to prescribe cannabis as the requirement for a prescription is extremely exacting. According to NHS guidance, medical cannabis can only be prescribed when there is clear evidence of its benefit and that there are no other treatment options. Additionally, the only approved cannabis medicine is Sativex, and it can only be used to treat spasticity caused by multiple sclerosis.
This seems to be quite contradictory as the UK is the world’s largest exporter of medicinal cannabis, so, in effect, there is a double standard at play. The government has declared that cannabis has limited medicinal value, but profits from the supply of nearly half the world’s medical and scientific cannabis.
The change in the law to legalise medical cannabis hasn’t changed anything for the people that need access to cannabis-derived medication. The limited number of products available and the excessively tight restrictions on prescriptions mean that medicinal cannabis is only theoretically legal. And this is against the backdrop of the supply of British-made cannabis to the rest of the world, while British citizens themselves have to go without.
2. Cannabis Declassification to Class C in 2004 then reclassification to Class B in 2009
Back in 2004, Home Secretary David Blunkett reclassified cannabis from Class B (which was the classification cannabis was assigned under the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971) to Class C.
Then, in 2008, the Home Secretary announced that that cannabis was to be reclassified to Class B in 2009, only a few years after it’s declassification to Class C. The effects of this mean a higher maximum jail sentence for possession without a medical prescription. The reasons cited have little evidentiary support and were based on the mental health of young people as a result of using cannabis. She cited this as an evidence-based decision rationalised by research showing that the heavy use of cannabis may lead to the development of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. Of particular concern are the super-strength strains (“skunk”) that form 80% of cannabis seizures in the UK. As a Class B substance, possession carries a maximum sentence of five years in jail, compared to Class C drugs that have a maximum two-year jail sentence.
This opaque, unclear messaging that is at odds with the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) latest recommendations. It is also in stark contrast to what is happening elsewhere in the world where Cannabis use and CBD products are becoming more and more the norm. Examples include Canada, where cannabis use is legal for both recreational and medicinal purposes, the US, where it is now legal in eleven states and across western Europe, including Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Belgium.
Worldwide, cannabis is being decriminalised, but the UK is going the other way. In the UK, over 59% of citizens support the legalisation of marijuana, but the government is holding firm on its anti-cannabis stance.
3. Mixed Messaging
While the government’s stance on cannabis for recreational use does not seem to be wavering, there are mixed messages coming from different people within the government. Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk, Sir Norman Lamb, is calling for the legalisation of cannabis after trying it in Canada. Along with Labour MP David Lammy and Conservative MP Jonathan Djanogly, Lamb was in Canada as part of a documentary for BBC Radio 1. He tried cannabis oil (with THC) and reported on the effects.
His stance is that cannabis should be considered for legalisation, with a cap on the potency allowed. He noted the overemphasis of mental health and psychosis conditions developing as a result of cannabis use where, in Canada, there is not the same level of debate.
Support for cannabis legalisation seems to be growing from some sectors of the government, but it is unlikely that the UK will legalise cannabis anytime soon. Most citizens are in support of legalising cannabis for recreational use, and a far higher number are in favour of its use for medicinal purposes. NHS research suggests that cannabis is a low-risk drug, and it’s much less addictive than smoking or alcohol use. The concerns primarily centre around mental health concerns and the lack of education amongst cannabis users. While some, among them Sir Lamb, predict that cannabis will be legalised within the next 5 to 10 years in the UK, the Independent Review of Drugs and Crime has said that there is no current agenda to reform cannabis legalisation.
4. CBD Regulation Restrictions
CBD is legal and sold throughout the UK. Up until now, there have been very few restrictions, and the FSA (Food Standards Authority) have had very little to say on the topic of CBD. This all changed in February 2020 with the announcement that CBD products would be classified as novel foods.
The need for regulatory oversight is clear as CBD products sold on the high street and online are not properly authorised. There is no requirement for producers to accurately declare and test for the safety and content of their products. The FSA is now saying that companies need to submit a Novel Foods application before 31 March 2021, otherwise the products will no longer be legally allowed to be sold.
The government is clamping down on CBD sellers, and this has serious implications for the CBD industry. While most CBD players will agree that regulation of the industry is important, the requirements that the government has put in place for CBD producers mean that only the biggest brands will be able to comply. The prohibitive compliance costs are expected to run into the hundreds of thousands of pounds. Then, there is the timing aspect to consider. It’s expected that manufacturers will have to wait around 18 months to find out whether their application for a Novel Foods licence has been accepted. If the company has submitted an application, their products will be allowed to remain on the shelves during those 18 months, provided that the products are correctly labelled, are safe for consumption and do not contain substances that are prohibited by the Misuse of Drug act of 1971. Further clarification on the restrictions and the application process is needed.
In the meantime, the CTA (Cannabis Trades Association), has gone on record urging the FSA to reconsider and suggesting that CBD companies don’t be too quick to apply. Their stance is that CBD extracts are not novel foods and should, therefore, not fall under the Novel Food restrictions.
While CBD and medical Cannabis are legal in the UK, there seems to be a push from the government to restrict both. It’s at odds with the latest research by the ACMD and is in direct opposition to the move towards legalisation by countries around the world. In the case of medical marijuana, it’s completely hypocritical. As the world’s largest exporter of medicine derived from cannabis, it doesn’t make any sense that the government should be profiting from medication that they refuse to make available to their citizens.