The UK’s CBD market is currently worth £300 million, with over 8 million people in the UK using the substance for its plethora of wellness benefits. Yet, for all this excitement, the truth is the UK’s CBD industry is facing a bit of a roadblock.
Novel Foods and the FSA
CBD has been in a period of regulatory uncertainty until this year and the industry faced criticism when investigations found that over half of the most popular CBD oils did not contain the amount of CBD reported on the label. On 13 February 2020, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) unveiled new plans to better regulate the industry and announced a deadline of 31 March 2021 for the submission of an application for novel food license for businesses selling food and food supplements containing CBD in the UK. In addition to this, the FSA gave a warning to all CBD companies that failure to comply may result in products being taken off the shelves.
Consumers are also advised by the FSA not to consume more than 70mg a day and to “think carefully” before taking CBD, making the UK the first country in the world to set recommended limits for CBD consumption, despite no scientific basis for the 70mg limit.
It is indisputable that the CBD market requires some form of regulation; to ensure consumers are receiving safe, legal, and quality products is a complex and costly process. CBD companies, particularly smaller CBD brands, will need to ensure they have the necessary infrastructure, expertise, and resources to meet this deadline.
No extension has been granted despite of the obstacles caused by the pandemic, so the deadline is fast approaching. This will put all businesses under pressure, as the process for applying for Novel Food status requires supplying a large amount of data from thorough testing. For larger players, this will likely be nothing more than an inconvenience, but for smaller, nascent businesses, these costs may put their longevity at risk. There are hundreds of CBD start-ups that have done great work to future-proof their businesses and create high-quality products. Now, instead of preserving costs to try and stay afloat during Covid-19, these businesses must put precious resource and funds into finalizing their applications in time.
In this developing industry improving end-user confidence in CBD products is crucially important. However, I firmly believe these regulations are suffocating the market. I fear that on April 1, 2021, many smaller firms who haven’t managed to achieve Novel Food status, yet have a superior product, will suddenly find themselves unable to legally trade.
But there is also the argument that the FSA ruling may increase the importation of CBD products from firms based outside of Europe. So far, the large cannabis firms in North America, which have the budget and expertise to meet FSA standards, have held back on importing CBD products to the UK. This may well have been to do with the slightly dubious legal status CBD has so far had in the UK, so it will be interesting to see whether this changes in April next year and which players will enter the market. The CBD market will continue to grow and diversify but it will be essential that this leads to increasing consumer choice rather than confusion.
An independent industry
In my view, the only way the UK will be able to fully harness the potential of CBD is to create an independent industry that not only helps consumers but contributes to the wider economy through jobs, skills, and investment. The pandemic has done well to put a spotlight on the huge access issues cannabis patients face in the UK, bolstering the case to “onshore” the industry.
Naturally, this would require huge change in the current licensing laws around growing cannabis, but the development of a UK-based industry would have endless benefits. Not only would medical cannabis patients see improved access to their medication, CBD firms would no longer have to ship oil in from the dominating wholesale nations such as Poland, Czechia, and Italy, which in turn could have huge economic benefits.
The development of a UK industry should involve the creation of a new regulatory system specifically designed for cannabis products and preferably for a new regulatory body, similar to the Office of Medicinal Cannabis in the Netherlands, to oversee all cannabis regulation, licensing, importation and approvals. This would mean a move away from the current solution of forcing CBD products into the Novel Food category and subjecting them to inappropriate regulations that will soon begin to smother the market with unnecessary red tape.
As Britons become better informed about CBD products, and as the market matures, demand will certainly increase. Yet with both Brexit and standardization of cannabinoid regulations occurring in parallel, the future and scale of the CBD market is still to be determined. A huge UK market could potentially help push it in a positive direction, facilitating processes for CBD producers.
The cannabis industry is resilient and, until this point, has managed to grow at an exponential rate despite regulatory uncertainty. As acceptance and demand continues to increase, so the case for an independent UK industry will strengthen and regulatory roadblocks finally overcome.