Where Next for CBD: The Law

It will not be long before the unstoppable force of demand for CBD products in the UK hits a notoriously immovable object in the form of our cannabis laws, which manage to be both ambiguous and absurdly strict.

The legalisation of medicinal cannabis products in 2018 was an important step forward, but there are still strict requirements for prescriptions, and a reluctance to fund on the NHS. Both issues will take a while to iron out, and meanwhile, there is a really significant role in the market for non-medicinal CBD products, which are widely available in chemists and health shops on the UK high street.

The range of quality, efficacy and price of these products is vast, and some estimate up to 6 million people in the UK have tried at least one of them. But the law on CBD is ambiguous, and the common understanding – that anything with a THC content below 0.2% is legal – is not reflected in our law.

Instead, CBD sellers have been helped by an arcane exemption for products that (among other things) contain no more than 1 milligram of a controlled drug, and a general (but unpredictable) tolerance from law enforcement. Producers and importers, meanwhile, have been left out in the cold: the exemption may apply to small bottles of CBD oil, but it cannot apply to whole vats of it.

The options are for current practice to be formalised, or translated into law, or (better still) for the legislation to catch up with public understanding and adopt the 0.2% threshold. While lawmakers work that out, there is a risk that the tolerant approach might be whipped away, which could put the UK’s CBD industry out of business overnight.

Which is more likely? The UK is notorious for kicking various cans down the road, but even it can’t do that with this industry for much longer. Consumers are voting with their feet, and lawmakers will eventually catch up. That may, of course, mean some sort of licensing system – in which case, the businesses that have built credibility during this uncertain period, doing all they can to comply with the laws as they are, will be in pole position to take advantage. So, it is worthwhile for businesses to ask themselves at this point: does that apply to you?


By John Binns, criminal-regulatory partner at BCL Solicitors LLP

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