CBD oil is surging in popularity; medical research continues to shed positive light over this impressive and exciting compound and resultingly, CBD and hemp products have multiplied rapidly on the consumer market.
The possible medical benefits of CBD are numerous and its status as a form of natural holistic medicine is rising in popularity as people discover its effectiveness in potentially treating a range of conditions.
However, since CBD has been thrust into the public eye it has triggered governments to take action in properly regulating the substance to make it safe for human consumption. The physical resemblance and biological similarity of hemp – the plant from which CBD is extracted – to illegal cannabis also often begs the question, is it even legal in the UK?
CBD – The Non-Psychotropic Cannabinoid
We may all know and understand that cannabis is an illegal class B drug in the UK but CBD is extracted from hemp, typically referred to as a strain of non-psychotropic cannabis that contains a very small amount of THC, the key psychoactive substance in illegal cannabis which actually gets you high.
CBD will not get you high and you will struggle to get high off smoking or consuming any amount of hemp.
Do these distinctions between hemp and cannabis, THC and CBD, make CBD oil legal?
Almost – but there are some caveats.
Cannabis vs. Hemp
Hemp is a form of cannabis that has been used for industrial and food purposes for some 10,000 years. It is still widely used in textiles manufacture, as a food source, as biofuel and most recently, for CBD products.
Hemp is a strain of cannabis sativa, a remarkable plant which is extremely quick-growing, tall, hardy and strong with exceptional yield potential even in poor conditions. Hemp fibre can be woven into strong textiles and the whole plant can be consumed – the seeds are especially nutritious and rich in Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.
Hemp also contains much higher levels of CBD than other forms of illegal cannabis, thus making it a far more efficient source of CBD when compared to other strains, including illegal strains which contain far less CBD than hemp.
The key to hemp’s legality for industrial cultivation purposes lies in its low concentration of THC. THC is the key psychoactive compound in illegal cannabis that gets you high. Hemp typically contains below 0.3% THC whereas illegal cannabis contains between 5% and 20% or greater.
The UK law is however quite complex and commonly misinterpreted – just because a product contains hemp levels of THC, e.g. below 0.2%, does not make it legal.
- Used for industrial and food purposes
- Low THC
- High CBD
- Legal to cultivate domestically or import if below 0.2% THC and granted a licence
- Additional regulations apply to products designed for human consumption
‘Marijuana’ Illegal Cannabis
- Used as medical marijuana in some countries, e.g. America
- Designated as an illegal class B controlled drug in the UK
- Low CBD
- High THC
- Can only be cultivated for medicinal purposes in the UK and most of Europe under the conditions of strict licenses and regulation
The THC Threshold
So is there a threshold of THC that would make a hemp product, including CBD oil, illegal?
Confusion arises over the frequently-cited EU definition of hemp vs cannabis, the EU cites that for cultivation purposes, hemp must have a THC content of below 0.2% to be designated legally as hemp. Retailers have misinterpreted this and many believe it is legal to sell any cannabis or hemp product providing it has THC content below this EU threshold of 0.2%.
This is not correct. The EU threshold applies for cultivation, not for sale and consumption in the UK. For a CBD product to be legal in the UK, it has to meet other criteria.
UK CBD Criteria
In the UK, CBD oil is legal so long as it contains no detectable THC – this is possible in the case of CBD oil obtained through intensive extraction techniques. CBD oil that contains no detectable THC is therefore not scheduled under the 2001 updates to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and is therefore legal:
CBD as an isolated substance, in its pure form, would not be controlled under the MDA 1971 / MDR 2001 – Drug Licensing Factsheet- Cannabis, CBD and other cannabinoids 2018.
If, however, a CBD or hemp product does contain detectable THC, it must be otherwise classified as an ‘exempt product’, meaning exempt from drug control.
To be designated as an ‘exempt product’, CBD oil must not be designed for administering any level of THC, must be packaged appropriately with appropriate ingredient listing and medical disclosures – the same as for extracted CBD oil – and must also contain less than 1mg total THC per container.
The 1mg per container rule means that CBD products can’t be sold in large containers that would then have large volumes of THC. This also effectively makes the sale of CBD flowers or buds for smoking purposes illegal as they will often contain more than 1mg of THC per container.
CBD Extracts vs. Full Spectrum Oils
In practical terms, CBD extracts in the UK which contain no detectable THC will always be legal providing they comply to labelling regulations. CBD oil manufacturers can send their products to licensed laboratories to prove their content
Full-spectrum oils that contain CBD alongside many other cannabinoids and other compounds including trace amounts of CBD require a little more attention from manufacturers to make them legal as they will need to abide by the rules of ‘exempt products’, most importantly having a total THC content of below 1mg per container.
So long as full-spectrum hemp oils comply with the regulations for ‘exempt products’, they too are legal in the UK.
CBD oil in the UK is legal so long as it contains no detectable THC or is otherwise an ‘exempt product’. Both CBD extracts and full-spectrum hemp oils can easily comply with these rules.
Fortunately, then, the UK law is not designed to penalise any type of CBD oil just because it might contain a very small amount of THC. It is relatively straightforward for manufacturers to comply with UK laws and there are few practical difference to CBD laws across most of Europe.