UK struggles to regulate booming CBD businesses

Published on December 13, 2019 · Last updated July 28, 2020
cannabis flower and hand with shadow

CBD is one of the UK’s fastest-growing wellness supplements, touted as a treatment for everything from epilepsy to anxiety.

According to research commissioned by the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis (CMC), the market for the popular cannabinoid is expected to be worth more than £1 billion by 2025. To put that into perspective, that’s almost as much as the rest of the UK’s other herbal supplement markets combined.

An overnight sensation

The growth has been nothing short of meteoric for something that just five years ago, consumers had barely even heard of. But CBD, also known as cannabidiol, reached new heights this November when the National Health Service (NHS) approved the use of two CBD-based medicines for the first time, a landmark moment in British attitudes towards cannabis.

This is undoubtedly good news for those selling CBD to the masses, but the sector’s explosive growth is raising concerns among experts. In June of this year, the CMC conducted the first large-scale testing of CBD-based products in the UK, revealing some worrying results.

According to the report, out of 30 products available at High Street stores (aka, Main Street retailers) 38% were within 10% of the advertised CBD content, while a further 38% actually had less than 50% of the advertised CBD content. One product even contained 0% CBD.

More worrying still was the fact that almost half (45%) the products contained measurable levels of THC, which is technically illegal in the UK, while others contained potentially harmful chemicals in levels above current food safety standards.

“Despite its importance and therapeutic potential, and the scale of the British consumer’s appetite for cannabidiol…we are some distance from the type of CBD sector that we need,” the report concluded.

“The UK’s legislation is ambiguous, outdated, and fragmented; quality is not defined, product composition is not guaranteed, and poor marketing practices are all too common. UK consumers are being let down as a consequence.”

A growing need for regulation

Customers in the UK are now very particular about who they buy their CBD from.

While the CMC’s report acknowledged the need for more stringent legislation, it also advocated for self-regulation among producers.

“CBD and cannabis-based medicine manufacturers know that the UK market is maturing and is now not as ‘barrier free’ as it was once considered. Customers in the UK are now very particular about who they buy their CBD from, and manufacturers are keen to self-regulate accordingly,” CMC medical lead Dr. Daniel Couch told Leafly via email.

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“However, despite there being a growing body of analytical methods for the testing of cannabinoids and other compounds in these products, few have been validated using internationally accredited guidelines. Moreover, standardized methods have yet to be developed for application at various stages of manufacturing as well as for different levels of processing and refinement. The result is that products can show different results depending on who does the testing due to different labs utilizing different testing methodologies. This can lead to companies shopping around for favourable testing results that do not truly reflect what the products contain.”

That’s why the CMC is coordinating with researchers and producers to develop a rigorous standardization process for CBD products.

It’s a move that will not only build trust among consumers but also help the industry adhere to the impending Novel Food legislation, which will come into effect across the European Union in 2020, and is expected to significantly impact the CBD industry.

However, Lewis Olden of leading CBD oil producer Canna Cares, is cautious.

“I do not believe self-regulation is the way forward. Though many companies will self-regulate to an appropriate standard, there will always be bad actors that cut corners and lie about the quality and content of their products,” he says.

There will always be bad actors that cut corners and lie about the quality and content of their products.

“Regulating the CBD market in a sensible manner, ensuring all products allowed to market are safe and of the highest standard, means that the perception of cannabis throughout the world will dramatically improve and ultimately mean that full recreational legalization will happen sooner. Whereas if the market isn’t appropriately regulated, the stigma of cannabis will remain and it will be more difficult to have legislation passed through government as there will be examples of dangerous and illegal practices to justify the maintenance of the current law.”

Adapting to customer demand

At the end of the day, Couch and Olden agree that customers themselves will drive better standards, which will ultimately lead to better products.

“Consumers will be the biggest beneficiaries of regulation,” Olden says. “The quality of the products will improve, people can use CBD knowing exactly what they are taking, and it is probable that the cost of CBD will decrease in the long run.”

“Customers now demand a transparent product, and this must start with producers,” adds Couch. “The stakes are high: if such regulated products are provided, the market will continue to grow; if they are not, we may see stagnation.”

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Daniel Bettridge
Daniel Bettridge
A writer, editor, and Amazon best-selling author, Daniel has written for publications including The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Independent, BBC, The Times, MSN, and Yahoo.
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