CBD in the UK: Evaluating the Growing Market

The UK CBD market has grown swiftly in the last few years. Consumer interest is still on the up, suggesting this isn’t just a passing fad.

In this article, we’ve analysed the sector. We’ve reviewed the size of the market, consumer attitudes and the changing regulatory framework around CBD.

cbd in the uk

What is CBD?

Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of a number of chemical compounds, called cannabinoids, found in the Cannabis sativa plant.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is another well-known cannabinoid – the one that causes you to feel ‘high’. Unlike THC, CBD doesn’t have any psychotropic or intoxicating effects.

CBD is widely available on the UK high street and online and can be purchased in a variety of products. These include oils and tinctures, topical creams, capsules and pills, gummies, vape products, beverages and cosmetics.

Interest in CBD has grown recently due to its potential therapeutic properties, lack of addiction risk and favourable tolerability and safety profile. Studies so far have suggested that CBD could be of benefit for anxiety, stress, inflammation, pain relief, muscle recovery, nausea, insomnia, asthma, acne and concentration.

It is these potential health benefits that are driving consumer interest in the UK. However, CBD’s therapeutic potential is not yet fully understood, and a number of new studies are underway around the world in order to explore it.

Is CBD legal in the UK?

In the UK, CBD products are legal as long as they don’t contain THC, which is a controlled substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MDA).

CBD isn’t a controlled substance. However, a CBD product containing over 1mg of THC per pack would be considered a controlled substance under the MDA, and would therefore be illegal.

In 2018 it became legal for doctors to issue prescriptions for cannabis-based medicines in special cases where the patient had an ‘unmet clinical need’ – for example, for children with severe epilepsy.

In 2016, the Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency issued a statement saying:

“We have come to the opinion that products containing cannabidiol (CBD) used for medical purposes are a medicine.”

However, they emphasised that:

“medicinal products must have a product licence (marketing authorisation) before they can be legally sold, supplied or advertised in the UK”.

This means that even though medicinal cannabis is now legal, CBD companies must not make medicinal claims about their products unless those products have been licensed as medicines.

To find out more about CBD laws in the UK, check out our article on the subject.

CBD in the UK: the state of the market

In June 2019, the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis (CMC) released a report on the UK CBD market. The report, titled ‘CBD in the UK’, detailed the findings of the most comprehensive study to date on the UK’s CBD sector.

The study found that in 2019, the UK CBD market was worth around £300 million with 1.3 million users. This is 3-6 times larger than had previously been estimated. It found that the market is growing rapidly, projecting it to be close to £1 billion by 2025.

The study also found that:

  • Most UK consumers (over 70%) are buying CBD as oils/tinctures or capsules
  • Users with a presumed medicinally-orientated usage spend an average of 2-3 times more per month on CBD than the general user population (£55 compared to £25)
  • Most UK consumers buy their CBD products online
  • UK consumers are paying high prices for their CBD products, and buying is motivated by a variety of factors

A May 2020 study by found that 8.4 million UK adults had either purchased or intended to purchase CBD products that year.

The study, based on a survey of 5,000 adults, suggested that UK consumers had spent £150 million on CBD products in the first four months of 2020. It projected that the market would reach £450 million over 2020 as a whole, representing a 50% increase over 2019.

The study revealed a range of reasons for buying CBD, finding that:

  • 42% of consumers bought CBD to manage or relieve pain
  • 21% bought CBD to treat insomnia
  • 19% bought CBD to relieve anxiety
  • 38% of consumers used CBD alongside conventional medicines

Are attitudes to CBD changing?

An initial lack of regulation on the safety and quality of CBD products left consumer confidence somewhat dented. However, two surveys mentioned in the CMC’s report suggest that CBD has now ‘gone mainstream’, with high usage across age groups and classes.

The surveys, undertaken by Dynata and YouGov in May and June 2019, suggest that:

  • 8-11% of UK adults (4-6 million people) have tried CBD
  • Those who had used cannabis to alleviate symptoms of any kind in the previous year were almost six times more likely to have used CBD in the previous year
  • Support for the legalisation of cannabis is higher amongst those who had used CBD in the previous year than the general population (75% compared to 47%)
  • Consumers prioritise purity and quality over legality or origin when buying CBD. Clear labelling information and usage advice were the most important purchasing priorities.

A poll of 2,065 adults conducted by YouGov on behalf of the Association for the Cannabinoid Industry (ACI) in March 2020 found that:

  • 71% of UK adults are aware of CBD products
  • Of those who are aware of CBD, 16% have bought a CBD product
  • 45% do not feel confident that all CBD products are correctly labelled and properly tested, compared to 29% who do
  • 46% said they would be more likely to buy or use CBD products if they could be certain they had been produced to tight regulatory standards

These survey results suggest that although CBD usage is high, consumers would welcome increased regulation and easily accessible, impartial information about CBD products in the UK.

How much CBD is in CBD products?

Without the necessary regulatory framework, it has been possible for some low quality and incorrectly labelled CBD products to enter the market.

As part of its ‘CBD in the UK’ report, the CMC commissioned the UK’s first major third-party testing exercise of CBD products. This involved conducting blind testing on 30 CBD oil products available in the UK.

The results revealed a wide variety in terms of quality. The best products represented very high quality, while others displayed issues in various areas:

  • Only 11 products (38%) contained within 10% of the advertised CBD content. 11 products had less than 50% of the advertised content, while one product contained 0% CBD
  • 45% of the products contained measurable THC (0.04% mean content) or CBN (0.01% mean content). This made them technically illegal in the UK
  • One of the products didn’t contain any cannabinoids at all. This was a product from a high street pharmacy on sale for £90
  • One product contained 3.8% ethanol, putting it above the limit (3.4%) at which it’s classed as an alcoholic beverage
  • Eight products contained levels of heavy metals or solvents that were above the limit for food safety, although below the permissible daily dose in pharmaceutical products

The changing regulations around CBD in the UK

It’s clear to see that in order for the UK CBD market to become safe and sustainable, some regulatory changes need to be made.

Fortunately, this process has already begun. In January 2019 CBD was placed in the Novel Food Catalogue, which is a list of foods covered by the EU Novel Food Regulation.

Foods are classed as novel if they have not been widely consumed in the UK or EU before May 1997, which is when the regulation came into force.

Novel foods need to have a pre-market safety assessment and authorisation before they can be legally sold in the UK. This means that CBD companies must ensure their products are covered by a novel food application.

In February 2020, the Food Standards Agency announced that CBD companies must have a validated novel food application in place for each of their products by 31 March 2021.

This new regulatory requirement paves the way for a responsible, high quality and legally compliant CBD market.

See our article on novel food applications to find out more.

The road ahead for CBD in the UK

CBD in the UK looks set to continue its upward trajectory, with growing demand and curiosity among consumers laying the foundation for a robust CBD market.

There are still some challenges to overcome if the sector is to reach its full potential. But with the recent regulatory guidance establishing a clear trajectory, the market appears to be on a sustainable path.

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