Why the UK Government Needs to Clarify CBD Product Policy

To call the current situation with CBD and related products in the UK ‘confusing’ might qualify as the understatement of the decade. As time passes, a growing number of MPs and influential figures are calling British pot policy everything from dangerously outdated to an embarrassment on the world stage. There’s no short answer to the question on recreational cannabis legalization – decriminalising medical cannabis is another matter entirely.

In terms of legality, the fact that CBD is not covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 or the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 means that any product that contains CBD and no other cannabis compounds doesn’t break current laws. If it contains the slightest trace of any other cannabis compound – such as THC – it would require a license to be sold. This is a point that was heavily debated three years ago and led to the development and release of a fairly wide range of CBD products.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act Request, the Home Office confirmed that where any THC at all is present in the product: “a Home Office licence to import this substance – or a preparation containing it – would be required, irrespective of the proportion of THC in that preparation. In addition, there may also be a requirement for a Home Office domestic possess [sic]and supply licence.” Figures are hard to come by, but it’s highly unlikely that more than a handful…perhaps none at all…of those producing and selling CBD products.

A little while later, the Home Office released updated guidance to help the courts and police decipher what is and isn’t considered an illegal substance, which read as follows:

“A substance produces a psychoactive effect in a person if, by stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, it affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state; as measured by the production of a pharmacological response on the central nervous system or which produces a response in in-vitro tests qualitatively identical to substances controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and references to a substance’s psychoactive effects are to be read accordingly.”

When taking into account these exclusions, the Misuse of Drugs Act and the way in which the Act chooses to define psychoactive, THC does indeed appear to break the law. Which once again leaves producers, sellers and users having little clue as to where they stand.

New Classification

Back in January, the Medicines & Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) finally confirmed that later this year, CBD products would be officially classified as medicines for the first time. The regulator apparently came about the decision “based on the fact that we noted that people were making some quite stark claims about serious diseases that could be treated with CBD.” In an interview with Sky News, MHRA spokesperson Gerald Heddel stated that CBD products can now be distributed across Britain, without breaking the law.

“It was clear that people are using this product with the understandable belief that it will actually help,” Heddel said.

On-going polls seem to suggest that public support for the legalization of medical cannabis is at an all-time high and continues to grow. The vast majority of doctors and health professionals would like to see more research carried out into the medical properties of pot, just as police in general believe the time has come for change.

“MHRA will now work with individual companies and trade bodies in relation to making sure products containing CBD, used for a medical purpose, which can be classified as medicines, satisfy the legal requirements of the Human Medicines Regulations 2012,” the MHRA continued.

Of course, it’s not all quite as cut-and-shut as it seems, given the way in which it will still be a case of only licensed businesses having the legal right to distribute CBD products. In order to receive the required licensing, they will have to first go through a process whereby their products are screened and ultimately deemed safe and appropriate for public use. All of which means an extended transition period, where thousands are likely to find themselves in limbo and unable to access the medicine they need.

Fears of prosecution have over recent months seen CBD products being pulled from the shelves in vast quantities, in order to be put on hold until clarification and/or licensing is issued. Given the fact that these are the kinds of products that can, do and will change lives for the better, it’s a pretty tragic picture to say the least.

A Promising Future

As for what the future holds for the industry, it’s a bit of a mixed bag all in all. As already mentioned, the general consensus among experts paints a picture of the kind of outdated cannabis policy that makes the UK a laughing stock. Not that there’s anything to laugh about when medical cannabis continues to be demonised and classified as a drug with no redeeming medical properties. Given the incredible stubbornness of the UK government and sluggish progress to date, it seems unlikely that there will be any dramatic changes to pot policy in the near future.

Looking at things a little longer-term though, there is plenty of cause for optimism. While UK cannabis policy and the industry as a whole both remain light years behind many other countries, Britain could nonetheless soon be one of the world’s biggest and most important producers of medical cannabis. Launched in 2010, GW Pharmaceuticals has confirmed plans to expand its medical cannabis cultivation and product manufacturing capacity in the UK, in order to meet global demand for two of its products.

GW is the developer and manufacturer of Sativex – a cannabis-derived drug that has proven to be extremely effective in the treatment of multiple sclerosis. Later this year, the company will also release a new epilepsy drug – also based on cannabis compounds – called Epidolex, which is also to be filed with US regulators over the coming months.

Conflict of Interests

All of which positions the UK in a rather unusual spot in terms of medical cannabis policy and advancement of related products. On one hand, the British bio-tech is already responsible for transforming lives on a global basis with cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals. On the other, cannabis policy in general remains so hopelessly restricted and outdated that accessing medical pot in any form can still render the public liable for criminal prosecution.

Late last year, it was none other than Nick Clegg – former deputy prime minister – who laid into the government and refused to sugar-coat how the public was being failed.

“British politicians need to open their eyes to what is happening in the rest of the world. Cannabis prohibition is being swept away on a tide of popular opinion and replaced with responsible legal regulation,” he said in an interview with The Times.

“Now is the time for ministers to start writing rules for this legal market, including age limits and health warnings, so that we can finally take back control from the criminal gangs.”

His remarks were supported by Norman Lamb, former health minister, who warned that the current system is more harmful than helpful.

“Prohibition is harmful and counterproductive, helping neither to reduce drug use nor the risks to public health,” he said.

“While other countries and US states are increasingly coming to adopt a more enlightened approach to drug policy, we are stuck in the dark ages, filling the pockets of criminals and perpetuating the stigma which prevents so many drug users from seeking help.”

There may be light at the end of the tunnel, but the journey in the meantime is likely to both drawn-out and needlessly convoluted.