Is the CBD bubble about to burst?

    25 June 2020

    If you’ve been anywhere near a health shop recently, you’ll have no doubt seen CBD – the non-psychoactive cannabis derivative turned lifestyle craze.

    Some estimates say that 7 million people in Britain have already used CBD for its purported wellness benefits (which include relaxation and better sleep). Yet for all the hype, the truth is that the CBD industry is facing a bit of a roadblock. At least in the UK anyway.

    Though CBD seemingly arrived from nowhere, this wasn’t a case of it being ‘legalised’ by the government. It was actually never illegal: the oils contain such small traces of THC (the chemical that gets you high), they were never covered by our drugs legislation in the first place. But it wasn’t until cannabis went mainstream in America, that CBD got popular enough to be commercially-viable.

    Then last year a bombshell report – the largest study of CBD products in Britain to date – revealed serious concerns about quality control. The report found that not only did most products in Britain suffer from inaccurate labelling, over half of those tested exceeded the permitted amount of THC. That made them illegal, and potentially dangerous too.

    In response, the Food Standards Agency – the body that looks after food safety in Britain – has said that, as of March 2021, all CBD products sold here will have to be individually registered as a ‘novel food’. In order to get that status, they need to prove exactly what’s in them (and that they’re not dangerous to human health).

    That won’t affect businesses making CBD products not intended to be consumed (like bath-bombs and body-oils) but it will throw a huge spanner in the works for anyone selling oils and vapes. Not least because the vast majority of those products are imported from Europe, often without a guarantee of exactly what’s in them.

    Is this the end of CBD in Britain? Probably not. This week Crispin Blunt, the Tory MP and long-term drug reform campaigner, spoke at Europe’s biggest cannabis conference, where he called on Downing Street to take the opportunity to ‘onshore’ the industry – that is, to make it easier for British businesses to produce CBD here, rather than shipping oil from Poland, Czechia and Italy (three of the countries that dominate the CBD wholesale industry).

    You can see how this might appeal to the government, but it would also require a major change to the licensing laws around growing cannabis.

    After all, the UK has historically been one of the strictest countries in Europe even when it comes to industrial hemp – the low-strength ropey cannabis that is sometimes harvested into cheaper CBD products. Many of the oils you can buy perfectly legally in Britain – that is until next March anyway – would actually be illegal (or at least very difficult to make).

    None of this has stopped the CBD fad taking off in Britain. Instead it’s led to a cottage industry of white-label CBD oils being shipped wholesale from Europe and then relabelled by UK companies. Many of these wholesalers exhibit at cannabis conferences in the UK, although the brands that re-sell their goods are less keen to shout about it.

    Until now, there’s been no rule that CBD products have to show an independent lab report with an exact breakdown of their CBD and THC content (and that they don’t contain harmful toxins like DXM). While many oils do have test reports, they’re not always the ones that reach the high street. Last time I checked, most of the oils in Holland & Barrett didn’t.

    But there’s one other factor that might save the CBD industry. So far the big cannabis firms from North America – the ones with the means and expertise to meet FSA standards – have held back on exporting CBD products to Britain. But that probably had something to do with the fact that the legal status of CBD was slightly ambiguous in the UK.

    If nothing else, the FSA ruling shows that the authorities aren’t necessarily worried about CBD per se; just the potential for unsafe products to sneak on to the market. Of course, the government might still decide to ban it, but I’d suspect not. And that just might give the big American firms the confidence to export here.

    Does this mean that CBD fans should stock up on their favourite product before March? That might be a little overcautious. You’d hope, after all, that the brands who wax lyrical about the brilliance of the stuff might be willing to ensure their CBD is sourced from quality suppliers. But it does raise a shadow of uncertainty over the industry: and one that’s worth keeping an eye on.