Is CBD oil legal in the UK?

Is CBD oil legal in the UK?

UK law on CBD in 2021

Cannabidiol (CBD) is legal in the UK, but there should not be any ‘controlled substances’ in the product. This is not to be confused with the legal status of cannabis, which is a controlled substance in the UK. However, as is often the case with laws, there are grey areas that are important to understand before buying and using CBD oils and other products.

These grey areas relate to CBD’s relationship with cannabis and the cannabinoid THC (another substance from cannabis), both of which are controlled substances. In fact, it is the rules on THC legal limits that impact CBD products the most and these are not clear. However, guidance can be taken from the UK Home Office's Misuse of Drugs Acts that sets out conditions for using THC.

There's been a change of approach to cannabis and cannabinoids ever since the UK government legalised medical cannabis in 2018 in relation to its benefits for people suffering from epilepsy. For example, Sativex is the only medicinal cannabis drug approved in the United Kingdom. We've also seen high street retailers such as Holland and Barrett selling CBD products.

Some people, including MPs, believe that cannabis will be legalised within the next ten years. Other experts see legalisation as an inevitable outcome of the UK government’s search for tax revenue.

Any future legalisation should decrease the grey areas regarding the use of cannabis, CBD oil and CBD products. However, it is important that consumers understand the law in 2021 with regards to CBD.

Is CBD oil legal in the UK?

UK law relating to cannabis, THC and CBD – the grey areas

Pure cannabidiol is legal, which is possibly due to the limited side effects, but that doesn't mean all CBD products are legal. Let us explain starting with the relevant laws for CBD oil (also referred to as hemp oil or cannabis oil), CBD products and cannabis.

Cannabis is a Class B controlled drug under UK laws, including Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, Misuse of Drugs regulations 2001, and Misuse of Drugs order 2015 (England, Wales and Scotland). This means that a licence is required for cultivating or possessing cannabis plants, including industrial hemp.

The cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is also considered a controlled substance. Therefore, a licence is definitely needed for cultivating cannabis sativa plants with low THC content (i.e. less than 0.2%). Different parts of the cannabis sativa plants have different amounts of THC. For example, oils derived from the fibres (which come from the stalk) and hemp seeds tend to have lower or no THC and are classed as ‘non-controlled’ substances.

However, hemp oils from the flowers and buds of the hemp plant are ‘controlled’ substances and therefore illegal in line with the overall classification of cannabis. Flowers and buds of the hemp plant often have higher concentrations of THC, hence their different treatment from fibres (from stalks) and seeds.

Therefore, it is essential that a consumer understands the contents of any CBD products bought and there should be no THC or other controlled cannabinoids, such as cannabinol (CBN). In practice, ‘no THC’ means the product should be verified by a lab that can detect up to 0.01% THC.

So, CBD itself is legal. However, the overall legality of CBD products is often considered as a grey area for those buying CBD products.


Other relevant regulations and governing bodies

As established, the selling of CBD products is legal (provided no controlled substances are included). However, there are other governing bodies that have rules relevant to the UK CBD industry, which are definitely worth knowing. These include:

  • Cosmetic products – all cosmetics products and topicals should have a Cosmetic Product Safety Report (CPSR) and CBD cosmetics are no different
  • Vape products – these need to comply with the United Kingdom's non-nicotine e-liquid regulations
  • Food products or dietary supplements – CBD foods (such as gummies) and supplements are considered to be ‘Novel Foods’ (the name given by the European Commission to any products on the market that were not regularly consumed by humans in the EU before 1997) and should have authorisation in line with the regulation.

On the last point regarding Novel Foods, if these CBD food supplements were manufactured after the 13 February 2020 they should have received a Novel Food authorisation (CBD foods on the market before this date should seek retrospective authorisation). Although this is an EU regulation, the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) has decided to enforce this for the UK even after leaving the European Union.

A special mention should be made for CBD teas. These are legal if they comply with the rules set out above. However, some teas are labelled ‘CBD tea’ but made from hemp flowers or buds, which strictly speaking are illegal. Interestingly, one of the concerns regarding flowers and buds being used as teas relates to the fact that boiling THC can increase its potency. Something worth bearing in mind when consuming CBD teas!

Lastly, the latest statement from the MHRA (the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) regarding CBD is that “individuals using cannabidiol (CBD) products to treat or manage the symptoms of medical conditions should discuss their treatment with their doctor”. Importantly, the MHRA indicates that unless a product is a licensed medicinal product, it should not make any medical claims (e.g. that it can cure, restore, heal, etc) on the packaging.

It is essential that a consumer understands the contents of any CBD products bought - there should be no THC. In practice, ‘no THC’ means the product should be verified by a lab that is accredited with a limit on detection of 0.01%.


UK stance on enforcement of laws related to THC in CBD products

The UK has tended to have a soft stance towards enforcement of laws related to cannabis and cannabinoids, which means that you can easily find products that do not strictly adhere to what we’ve summarised above. Such products are openly sold in the UK.

As a consumer the things to be sure of when purchasing CBD products are as follows:

  • Do you know the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content?
  • Has the THC content been verified in a suitably accredited lab?
  • Does the product have adequate labelling without medical claims (unless it is a licensed medicine)?
  • Was the product manufactured using the appropriate part of the hemp plant (e.g. stalk/fibres and seeds, not flowers or buds)?

These are the key questions to ask to make sure you are getting the right CBD products for you.


Brexit and CBD

Yeah... we need to talk about Brexit. But don't worry, it's actually positive and only a brief note to watch this space in relation to the UK CBD market. As it happens, many of the rules around CBD products are derived from EU regulations (e.g. the one regarding the EU's Novel Food regulation noted above).

The UK leaving the EU formally and finally means that there is scope for changes in future and CBD companies will adapt accordingly. One interesting dynamic to watch from the UK's perspective is whether or not we de-link from the direction increasingly being signalled in European Commission, which is increased regulation of CBD. In fact, there is talk of the EU classifying CBD as a narcotic, which won't apply automatically the UK now we've left the EU.

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