UK law on CBD is often met with confusion. CBD oil and other CBD products have seen a surge in popularity in the last few years. However, many people are still unsure whether these products are entirely legal – and there’s also confusion about the regulations they must meet to be sold on the UK market.
In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about CBD oil and UK law.
What is CBD oil?
The Cannabis sativa plant species contains chemical compounds called cannabinoids. Of over 100 different cannabinoids, cannabidiol (or CBD) is just one.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the cannabinoid that causes psychoactive effects – the one that gets you ‘high’. CBD doesn’t have this effect.
CBD oil is usually extracted from hemp, a strain of Cannabis sativa containing little or no THC. For thousands of years, hemp has been cultivated and used to make products including:
- textiles and clothing
- biofuel and bioplastics
In recent years, interest has grown in the potential therapeutic and medicinal properties of CBD oil. It is touted as a treatment for a variety of health issues, including anxiety, insomnia and chronic pain. Despite this, we still need more research to fully understand its effects.
In 2019, a huge step was made in CBD laws. A medication containing CBD – Epidyolex – was approved for use in the UK to treat severe epilepsy.
Now, foods, food supplements, cosmetics and vape products containing CBD are widely available to buy. Meanwhile, the UK CBD market continues to grow.
However, because of its association with cannabis, there is often a lack of clarity over CBD oil and UK law.
What is the UK law on CBD oil?
So, is CBD oil legal in the UK? The short answer is yes – but it’s a little more complicated than that.
CBD oil is legal as long as it doesn’t contain THC. This, along with most other cannabinoids, is a controlled substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MDA). This means that possessing, producing or distributing a product that contains THC is illegal.
CBD is not a controlled substance. However, a CBD product containing traces of THC is a controlled substance under the MDA, unless it meets the ‘exempt product’ criteria in the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 (MDR).
To meet the criteria, a CBD product must not contain more than 1mg of THC per pack. We’ll explain this in more detail below.
A timeline of CBD oil and UK law
- 1928: The UK first made cannabis illegal, adding it as an addendum to the Dangerous Drugs Act 1920.
- 1968: The Wootton Report, a Home Office investigation into cannabis, concluded that cannabis was ‘less dangerous than opiates, amphetamines and barbiturates’. They recommended that imprisonment was ‘no longer an appropriate punishment for those who are unlawfully in possession of a small amount’.
- 1971: The Misuse of Drugs Act came into force. This listed cannabis as a Class B drug and restricted the cultivation of all varieties of the cannabis plant.
- 2001: The Misuse of Drugs Regulations were introduced. This new legislation permitted cannabis to be cultivated under a licence issued by the Home Office and to be smoked for research purposes.
- 2010: The Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) issued a marketing authorisation for Sativex. This cannabis-based medicine is the first to be recognised in the UK as having medicinal properties. Sativex is now available as a prescription-only treatment for multiple sclerosis symptoms.
- 2018: It became legal for specialist doctors to prescribe cannabis-based medicines for patients with an ‘unmet special clinical need’. The law changed following pressure from parents of children with severe epilepsy, who had benefited from medicinal cannabis.
- 2019: CBD was classified as a ‘novel food’. This means any food or food ingredient containing CBD needs pre-market safety assessment and authorisation.
How can I make sure my CBD product meets UK laws on THC limits?
As mentioned previously, CBD products must contain less than the legal limit of THC to be classed as an ‘exempt product’ under the MDR.
The MDR allows for no more than 1mg of THC per container in any given CBD product or preparation. This limit applies regardless of the size of the container.
For example, a product that comes in a 10ml pack must contain less than 1mg of THC. However, the same product in a larger pack could still only have up to 1mg of THC.
There’s some confusion around CBD oil, UK law and the THC limit, with some sources quoting the limit as 0.2%. However, this figure actually applies to the cultivation of hemp.
Hemp can only be cultivated legally if it has a THC content below 0.2%. This is called ‘industrial hemp’, and you’ll need a licence from the Home Office to grow it.
The 0.2% limit does not apply to CBD products derived through modern extraction methods. This includes the CBD capsules, oils, drinks and other products available in shops.
It can be difficult to consistently meet the 1mg limit, as some unaccredited CBD testing labs are unable to reliably detect 1mg of THC.
To avoid the risk of unwittingly exceeding the limit, it’s advisable to ensure products contain no THC. Have this verified by an accredited lab, with a limit of detection of 0.01%.
CBD and the UK Novel Food Regulation Law
According to this regulation, foods are considered novel if they were not consumed to a significant degree in the UK or EU before May 1997, when the regulation came into force.
All novel foods must have a pre-market safety assessment and authorisation before they can be legally marketed or used in food for human consumption in the UK.
Examples of CBD products that are subject to the Novel Food Regulation include:
- CBD oils, oral sprays and capsules
- Snacks, like energy bars
- CBD infused tea, coffee, soft drinks and beer
- CBD mints, gummies and other sweets
Hemp products like flour and cold-pressed oils aren’t considered novel. There’s evidence showing these products were consumed before May 1997.
What does the Novel Food Regulation mean for CBD companies?
CBD companies must ensure their products are covered by a novel food application.
On 13 February 2020, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) announced a new deadline of 31 March 2021. By this date, companies needed a validated novel food application in place for all of their products.
After 31 March 2021, only products with novel food validation can remain on the shelves.
Applying for novel food authorisation involves preparing a dossier of manufacturing and product information. This information will demonstrate that your product is safe for human consumption.
The dossier must then be submitted to the European Commission, or the FSA if submitting after 31 December 2020.
You can read our complete guide to the Novel Foods Application process in our article here.
Are CBD flowers and buds legal in the UK?
The flower and bud of the hemp plant are widely available in shops, often sold as ‘tea’ and other products. These products claim to have a high CBD content and ‘legal’ levels of THC.
However, hemp flowers and buds are a controlled substance. The fact they’re openly sold in shops and online is, again, the result of widespread confusion around the law. There’s also a fairly soft stance on enforcement from the UK authorities.
Retailers usually claim their CBD flower and bud products are legal. They often quote the fact that they contain less than 0.2% THC and come from ‘EU approved varieties’ of hemp.
For further information on this topic, we’ve written an extensive blog answering the question ‘Is CBD flower legal in the UK?‘.
What is the UK law on travelling with CBD oil?
If you’re planning a trip, you might be wondering what UK law says about taking your CBD oil with you.
Since CBD oil is legal in the whole country, you should be able to take it on domestic flights within the UK. Just watch out for the 100ml liquid limit in hand luggage, which includes oils.
Read our in-depth blog explaining can you take CBD oil on a plane in the UK?
Can you sell CBD as medicine under UK law?
In 2016, the MHRA issued a statement saying: “We have come to the opinion that products containing cannabidiol (CBD) used for medical purposes are a medicine.”
However, they stressed that ‘medicinal products must have a product licence (marketing authorisation) before they can be legally sold, supplied or advertised in the UK’.
Although medical cannabis has been legalised, CBD companies are not allowed to make claims about the medicinal benefits of their products unless they have been granted a medicinal product licence.
Sativex, Epidyolex and nabilone (a synthetic cannabinoid used for treating chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting) are currently the only licensed CBD or cannabis-based medicines available in the UK.
Businesses can still sell unlicensed CBD products– and some people may use them medicinally. However, these products are not allowed to be labelled or sold as medicine. MHRA advises anyone using CBD to treat or manage medical conditions to discuss their treatment with their doctor.
CBD Oil and UK Law: Conclusion
CBD oil is not only legal to sell – it’s a thriving business opportunity. With markets growing, there’s never been a better time to get involved.
But as we’ve seen, the laws around CBD are often complex – so it’s helpful to have some expert advice on your side.
Our consultancy service can give you the industry expertise you need, whether it’s help with Novel Foods Regulations or tips on expanding your client base. Get in contact with our team today to find out how we can help you.