Cannabis in the UK: changing perceptions

What is CBD?
Cannabidiol is a compound found in the plant Cannabis sativa and it is the new health and wellness buzzword. This type of compound is called a cannabinoid. The cannabis plant has over 100 different cannabinoids each with their own unique and various effects. It is cannabidiol (CBD) and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that make up the majority of cannabinoids in the cannabis plant.

THC is famous for giving you that psychoactive “high” feeling most often associated with “marijuana”. But CBD is becoming just as well known. Although it is from the same plant, CBD is non-intoxicating and an anti-psychotic. It won’t give you a trip, but you will still feel relaxed and receive the therapeutic benefits. Usually the CBD that you will find in your local market or health food store is derived from a low THC cultivar of the cannabis plant, commonly referred to as hemp.

What is hemp and is it legal in the UK?
The threshold for differentiating legal industrial hemp from illegal cannabis is a THC amount of 0.3% or 0.2% depending on who you’re talking to and what country you’re in. EU regulations are currently at 0.2% (although this could increase by 2021) whilst non-EU countries including the US and Canada have the higher limit of 0.3%.

The UK Home Office have issued guidelines stating that THC content of industrial hemp must fall below 0.2% which is in line with current EU regulations. It is legal to grow hemp in the UK so long as you have a licence from the Home Office, and you use EU approved strains. However, this exemption has traditionally only applied to the stalk and seed for the use of textiles and foods, not to the leaves or flower buds. This would suggest that hemp flower buds are still technically illegal in the UK, even if they are from legal hemp strains as it is only the stalk and seed that is exempt from the Misuse of Drugs Act. However, it gets more complicated.

The law also states that products ‘derived from’ industrial hemp may be exempt from the Misuse of Drugs Act so long as it is a ‘processed’ product that contains less than 1mg of ‘controlled’ cannabinoids (such as THC or CBN). The element of ‘processed’ opens up debate. It seems that if these same hemp flowers and leaves are ground up and packaged into a tea bag, law enforcement isn’t so fussed. That’s because the act of grinding up the flower buds turns this raw, unprocessed hemp into a “processed product”. But what else is regarded as a process. Does curing and trimming count as a process? Does packaging and labelling count as a process? Hemp seed oil used for cooking, which has been in use and sold commercially for years, is also able to contain trace cannabinoids. There are many questions and contradictions here.

The same guidelines state that any cannabis-containing products imported from outside the UK would require a drug import license from the Home Office, if the said product contained any trace of controlled cannabinoids, such as THC or THC-V.

CBD isolate, the isolated compound ‘in its pure form’ is not a controlled substance according to Home Office guidelines. But the majority and most popular varieties of CBD oil currently on the market are referred to as “full spectrum” precisely because they contain trace amounts across a spectrum of at least 100 cannabinoids other than CBD. They are not pure isolates. In fact, it would be pretty much impossible to ensure that any hemp derived product did not contain trace amounts of cannabinoids other than CBD, especially within the 1mg limit. Whilst farmers with hemp licenses can get away with growing plants with under 0.2% THC before ‘processing’, cannabis or CBD products will only be exempt if there is less than 1mg THC/CBN per unit.

The majority of products fall outside this strict limit, including big-name high-street brands. Mathematically this is a very low threshold, as 1mg is equal to 0.001ml. A 10ml bottle of CBD oil would have to have less than 0.01% THC for it to be considered legal. For a 30ml bottle, it must have less than 0.003%! It is untrue that products with traces of THC are illegal, but any singular product with more than 1mg of THC would be considered illegal. This strict limit may come as a surprise to many in the cannabis and CBD community, particularly because there is strong evidence to suggest that CBD works best when there are other cannabinoids present – THC may enhance the therapeutic effects of CBD. Holland and Barrett are one example of a high street brand selling CBD products with traces of other cannabinoids, as well as hemp tea bags. According to Holland & Barrett their CBD oil tests at under 0.05% of THC with capsules even testing at 0% THC.

Owner of Canna Kitchen, the first CBD infused restaurant in the UK put it nicely: “If trace elements of THC render these products [CBD flower] illegal, then by default all CBD products must be illegal in the UK. This would mean that many large high street chains are currently breaking the law.” This statement comes after several raids have taken place across the UK in the last few weeks at establishments selling CBD and cannabis related products, including Canna Kitchen. Meanwhile in Italy the Deputy Prime Minister has declared a ‘war on cannabis’ with three shops being closed last month in May.

Yet, why have the police chosen to target specific shops over others? Armed and in riot gear they have been described as ‘heavy-handed’ as they asserted themselves at small businesses across the country. This is despite the fact that these businesses have been willing and compliant with regards to dealing with the police and trading standards officials, even providing samples to them. In Ireland, CBD sellers have faced similar raids, whilst at the same time the government have been progressing plans to impose a 23% VAT tax on the very same products. Naturally this has angered business owners who are facing jail time whilst the government make plans to profits off the very same products.

Shift in the UK on the perception of cannabis

At the same time as this madness unfolds there has been slow movements towards legalisation for medical purposes, starting with the change in the law of November 2020. Whilst the change in the law has been criticised as not actually giving patients greater access to the medicines they need the campaigns have been gaining momentum.

According to the Misuse of Drugs Act “cannabis” is still a Schedule 1 drug ‘not used medicinally’ whereas “cannabis-based products for medicinal use in humans” are under Schedule 2, meaning they can be authorised, possessed and supplied by a licensed pharmacist. It is interesting that this should be the case when it has come to light that in 2016 the UK was the biggest exporter of cannabis for medical use, according to a United Nations report.

Steve Rolles of drug policy reform group Transform has stated:
“It is scandalous and untenable for the UK government to maintain that cannabis has no medical uses, at the same time as licensing the world’s biggest government approved medical cannabis production and export market.

It is profoundly unethical, and a violation of the fundamental right to health, to deny people access to medicines that are prescribed by their doctors.”

With licenses costing over £500 and renewal fees at over £300 it seems that medical cannabis is only attenable to those with the money, and it is not available to those who medically need it.

Steve further adds “The government must relax restrictions that grant a monopoly for a single product to a single company. It must allow access to cannabis-based medicines that serve patients needs”.

So what is the legality of cannabis products?

Industrial hemp grown with a THC content of under 0.2% is legal, but cannabis products derived from this same hemp are not legal. Unless they contain less than 1mg of THC/CBN per unit, which is unlikely to be the case unless the product is made using CBD isolated from the hemp. Raw unprocessed hemp flowers are acceptable to grow if you have a licence, but only the stalk, fibre and seeds can be sold legally as part of your business. Unless it’s packaged and “processed” into a tea bag, in which case it seems to be fine. Confused?

Now more than ever we need clarification and reformed policy on CBD, THC, hemp and cannabis derived products. The law is not only out of date regarding scientific opinion, but poorly drafted. Nearly all cannabis derived products are technically illegal, yet only specific businesses and individuals are being targeted by law enforcement. The police are just as misguided on the law, as are trading standards officials. This puts consumers and businesses – individuals and families – in an incredibly vulnerable grey area.

At the same time The first medical cannabis clinic has opened in Manchester with two more set to open in London and Birmingham.

Whilst it is true that there may be businesses and individuals that are jumping into a new, potentially massive market, who are more interested in making a quick buck than the therapeutic aspects of the plant. But there are many who truly care about the power of cannabis plants and a large, growing body of evidence to support the use of CBD and other cannabinoids, including THC and CBN.

This is precisely why we need to clarify and redraft legislation capable of standing up to current evidence and public opinion. We would not be alone in this venture; 21 other countries have legalised cannabis in some form, not even including the US or countries that have decriminalised weed.

Patients are already relying on an effective medicine and small business owners and patients should not pay the price for contradictory and undefined policy on the matter. Anyone with common sense can see that this is a messy situation. We have the right as consumers to have clarity on this issue and to have a secure framework implemented which protects us.

For more resources see below:
Drug Licensing Factsheet
Misuse of Drugs Act
NICE: Controlled drugs and drug dependence guidance

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  • Madi Grace
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