CBD – a non-psychoactive chemical derived from cannabis – is celebrated by everyone from Goop subscribers to Daily Mail writers for its transformative powers.
An estimated 1.3 million people in the UK regularly use CBD for a variety of health and wellness reasons – but ingestible CBD products occupy a hazy legal area, characterised by unclear enforcement, restrictive drug laws and over-exuberant marketing claims. This has led to a booming, but not-quite-fully-legal, consumer market.
Having until now stood idly by as the CBD craze swept the country, the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) has unveiled new plans to better regulate the cannabidiol industry and issue new safety advice for consumers. Under the FSA's new rules, CBD companies have until the end of March, 2021 to submit a product safety dossier to the regulators, or else be pulled from the shelves.
Consumers are also advised by the FSA to "think carefully" about taking CBD, and not to consume more than 70mg a day, making the UK the first country in the world to set recommended limits for CBD consumption. Those who are pregnant, breastfeeding or on medication are advised not to consume CBD at all.
The move – which comes following CBD's designation as a "novel food" in January of 2019 – brings clarity to an industry that has endured much uncertainty regarding the legal status of their products. While the FSA's approach will test the viability of many smaller CBD brands, it's good news for consumers, because there are a lot of dodgy CBD products out there.
Last year, the Centre for Medical Cannabis (CMC) tested 30 CBD oils available in the UK and found that 11 of them contained less than half their advertised CBD content. One high-street pharmacy product retailed for £90, but contained no CBD at all. Forty-five percent of the products also contained detectable levels of THC – rendering them potentially illegal in the UK – while others contained residual solvents and traces of heavy metals. Products that rip you off and leave you open to health risks and potential arrest are clearly no good to anyone. In contrast, products seeking authorisation will undergo rigorous scrutiny to ensure they are consistent, stable and safe to use.
Under the EU's "Novel Food Regulations", any food without a history of EU consumption before May of 1997 is considered "novel" and has to be approved by the European Commission, following a comprehensive safety audit, before it can be sold. Novel foods include traditional products from other countries (such as chia seeds), new sources of food (e.g. insects) and food that has undergone a new processing treatment (like UV-treated milk and bread).
As an "unauthorised novel food", producers of CBD extracts are supposed to get EU approval before they enter the food supply. However, CBD products had been around for several years before the EU confirmed they were "novel", shutting the barn door long after the horse had bolted. CBD's "novel" status has done little to dent UK consumers' enthusiasm for tinctures, capsules, croissants and seltzers. For fans of CBD cosmetics, vapes and infused mattresses, you'll be happy to hear none are affected by this announcement because none of those things are food.
Three companies have already submitted authorisation applications to the EU, with others expected to follow – meaning there is every reason to assume CBD will remain widely available until at least March, 2021. The fact the UK now has a predictable pathway to legal CBD sales is also likely to tempt large, non-cannabis food and drink brands such as Unilever and Coca-Cola to use the market as an entry point for future CBD-infused products.
Not everyone will welcome the FSA's new proactive stance. Only larger companies are likely to be able to make a CBD application, given the extensive scientific and product-specific data that's required, which can take more than a year and millions of dollars to generate. With hundreds of CBD brands in the UK, smaller, less sophisticated outfits look set to lose out to larger competitors.
The UK is not known for its progressive weed laws: medical cannabis access has rolled out abysmally, and recreational reform is far from the Tories' current agenda. But in this instance, the FSA's stance is a good one: supporting both consumer safety and choice while allowing serious CBD brands to step up to the mark. For now, at least, the genre-defying cannabis compound is safe in UK stores.