The cannabis extract CBD, aka cannabidiol, is an increasingly popular natural wellness product that has demonstrated some clinical potential for treating certain health conditions.
Taken on its own CBD doesn’t produce the ‘high’ associated with smoking cannabis. But given its origin, you may be wondering whether it’s actually legal in the United Kingdom and what regulations you need to be aware of if you’re considering using it.
CBD (cannabidiol) is one of a number of chemical compounds known as cannabinoids found in strains of the cannabis sativa plant. Cannabis itself is a Class B controlled substance in the United Kingdom, as is THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive cannabinoid that gets you high.
Penalties for possession of cannabis can include up to five years in prison, while dealing or trafficking can carry a 14-year sentence. Both offences may also include unlimited fines.
Nevertheless, CBD in its pure form is not a controlled substance in the UK, meaning it is legal to market and buy products containing it.
It’s when it comes to the THC content of CBD products that things get a bit trickier.
CBD grown under licence in the UK is made from hemp, the name for any of a number of varieties of cannabis sativa bred to produce low levels of THC. However, it can still be difficult to remove every trace of THC when producing CBD. In recognition of this, the UK Home Office allows a certain level of THC in CBD products.
There is a common misconception that the allowable level of THC is 0.2%. There are likely two reasons for the confusion. Firstly, hemp harvested in the UK can only be grown from approved strains that themselves contain no more than 0.2% THC by dried weight. Secondly, 0.2% is the legal limit of THC allowed in CBD products in the majority of European countries.
But, as is often the case, the UK does things a bit differently. Here, it’s not a percentage producers have to look out for but a weight. Any single bottle or packet of CBD must contain no more than 1mg of THC, regardless of its size. That means that the percentage varies depending on the volume of the container. For example, a 30ml bottle of CBD oil containing 1mg of THC, would be 0.003% THC. But a 10ml bottle containing the same amount, would be 0.01% THC.
A recent study of 30 CBD oil products available in the UK suggests it’s likely that many brands currently flout the 1mg rule. It found that 45% contained detectable levels, averaging 0.04%.
Although THC levels in most CBD products will still not be high enough to cause any noticeable effect, it’s a reminder to choose a reputable brand of CBD oil that can demonstrate good provenance and reliable processing of its products.
Despite the complexity of the rules on THC levels, the CBD industry currently operates in something of a regulatory grey area in the UK and the European Union, allowing some companies not only to get away with illegal levels of THC but also to sell products that have considerably less CBD in them than they claim (in a study by the Centre for Medical Cannabis, 38% of products tested had less than half the CBD content advertised, and one had none at all).
However, all that is about to change. The explosion of interest in CBD, and the proliferation of products, has led the UK and the EU to turn their attention to properly defining CBD’s status and tightening up the rules around its marketing to consumers.
Except in the specific case of Cannabis Based Products for Medicinal Use (CBPMs), CBD products are not considered medicines and cannot make medical claims about health benefits. However, after some legal wrangling, the UK and the EU have agreed that CBD should not be classed as a narcotic either, since it has none of the psychotropic or negative effects associated with banned drugs.
That leaves one other option – to classify it as a food – and, in the case of CBD, as what is called a Novel Food.
Novel Foods are defined by the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the European Commission as foods that have “not been consumed to a significant degree by humans in the EU before 15 May 1997”, the date when the first regulations on Novel Food became active.
Novel Foods can include traditional foods from other countries, as well as recognisable foods adapted using new processes – such as bread treated with ultraviolet light to increase its vitamin D levels. However, CBD is considered a ‘new food’, something that in isolation has never previously been consumed. Other examples of these types of Novel Foods are the plant extracts phytosterols and phytostanols, which are added to cholesterol-reducing spreads.
In much of Europe, the process for regulating CBD products as Novel Foods is in its early stages. However, in the UK, the FSA is ahead of the game and anyone wanting to market CBD here must submit a detailed dossier about each of its products by 31st March 2021. After that date, products that have not had an application submitted can no longer be sold in the UK.
While it processes the applications, the FSA has also said that no new CBD products can be brought to the market.
In the long run, the Novel Food regulations are likely to be good news for consumers, forcing producers to demonstrate the provenance of their CBD, improve the accuracy of labelling and ensure that the content is in line with the law, so that high levels of THC – and low levels of CBD – will no longer be a worry.
CBD is not one of the substances that is detected by drug tests in the UK, so taking pure CBD will not lead to a positive test result.
Tests searching for evidence of cannabis register the presence of THC metabolites in urine, saliva or hair. And if your CBD products are in line with UK law, they will not contain enough THC to be detectable.
However, that’s why it’s important to buy your CBD from a trustworthy source that can prove THC levels with independent lab analysis.
Crystal Drug & Alcohol Testing, which provides workplace and individual legal drug tests, says: “If the oil does contain trace amounts of THC, this should fall below the cut-off levels of the drug test. However, if you have bought a product outside the UK, this could be a different matter. Some unregulated CBD oils can contain up to 5% content of THC. As a result, if used regularly, you could test positive for THC.”
Since CBD is legal in the UK, there is no law against driving after taking it. And even with the caveats discussed above, it’s unlikely you’ll have a level of THC in your bloodstream that would either be illegal or cause you to be intoxicated.
A Dutch study published in 2020, appeared to show that CBD does not impair driving ability – although at 13.75mg, the dosage of CBD tested was relatively low. A 2018 review of studies concluded that the medication Sativex – a 50:50 combination of CBD and THC – “was shown not to impair driving performance”. However, the review noted that the drug might raise the level of THC in a patient’s bloodstream above the legal limit in some countries, meaning drivers should be aware of the relevant national laws and should carry a medical certificate.
It’s also important to be aware that CBD makes some users feel drowsy or fatigued. Up to a fifth of accidents on motorways are thought to be due to tiredness, so you should never drive when you’re tired.
Since CBD is legal in the UK, it’s fine in principle to take it on a flight. If you want to carry it with you, you’ll just need to be aware of the rules around liquids in hand luggage.
However, you should bear in mind that the laws may be different at your destination.
In Europe, CBD is legal in most countries as long as the levels of THC are not above 0.2%. However, there are a number of exceptions, ranging from Austria where CBD edibles are no longer allowed to other countries where all cannabis-based products, including CBD, are still illegal. To be safe, check the laws at your destination before flying.
The United States Transport Security Administration (TSA), which is responsible for security at airports, makes it clear it does not search for narcotics including marijuana, so CBD is unlikely to be high on its list of priorities. However, the TSA will report you to the police if it finds drugs on you. When it comes to CBD, the federal limit for THC content is 0.3% but you should also bear in mind that the legal status of cannabis and its derivatives differs from state to state, so it's best to check before you go.
Elsewhere in the world, laws can vary wildly, with some countries – in Asia and the Middle East, for example – considering any cannabis-based products including CBD to be illegal drugs and potentially subject to the strictest penalties. You should therefore check the laws in the countries and airports you are flying to and, if in any doubt, do not travel with CBD.
According to the World Health Organization, CBD has “a good safety profile” and poses no discernible risk to public health. In a recent ruling, The Court of Justice of the European Union backed this up, concluding that CBD “does not appear to have any psychotropic effect or any harmful effect on human health”.
Clinicians generally consider CBD to be ‘well tolerated’ – meaning that it is rare for a subject to drop out of a medical trial due to adverse effects – and the attraction of further research into CBD’s therapeutic potential is often in part due to its low level of significant side-effects when compared to traditional medicines.
However, a small proportion of CBD users do experience minor side-effects, including dry mouth, drowsiness or fatigue, changes in appetite and in some cases diarrhoea, nausea and mood changes.
It’s also important to be aware that CBD can interact with a range of medications, potentially leading to unsafe levels of the drug in a patient’s system and increased side-effects.
Drugs that may be affected include those that carry a grapefruit warning. However, CBD may also adversely affect drugs without warnings so if you are on any medication or supplements you should always consult your doctor before taking CBD.
The author of this article is not a medical expert and nothing in this article constitutes medical advice or gives rise to a medical practitioner/patient relationship. You should seek specialist medical advice where required. Never disregard professional medical advice or refrain from seeking it because of something you have read here.