Lynne Gray: Suddenly, cannabidiol is everywhere and in everything

A year ago, I found myself in ‘Cosmic Coffee’ in Burlington, Vermont. Amongst the myriad of choices, I was surprised to find a “cannabis coffee” with the opportunity to add a shot of “CBD oil” to my long black. A prominent board made many claims of the benefits of CBD ranging from anti-inflammatory to calming. I was confused. Cannabis in my coffee, was that even legal? Maybe in Vermont, but what about Scotland?  Although tempted, I ordered a regular Americano, but the criminal lawyer in me was intrigued. I took a photo of the board and resolved to find out more.

Elaine Grant from Natures Medics and Kyle Gentleman, who runs artisan ice cream parlour ICE in Redding, have brought out the UKs first CBD oil-infused ice cream. One scoop is the equivalent to a single dose of CBD oil. Picture: Michael Gillen
Elaine Grant from Natures Medics and Kyle Gentleman, who runs artisan ice cream parlour ICE in Redding, have brought out the UKs first CBD oil-infused ice cream. One scoop is the equivalent to a single dose of CBD oil. Picture: Michael Gillen

A quick internet search advised that CBD would not get me high but claimed to have the potential to do so much more. CBD – or cannabidiol – is a natural constituent of cannabis (that comprises around 200 different compounds). CBD is non-psychoactive as compared to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), one of the other larger compounds found in cannabis plants. CBD will not get you high, as it does not disrupt the central nervous system. However, according to a report issued in 2017 by the World Health Organisation, it might help successfully treat symptoms relations to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, MS, and pain, anxiety, depression, cancer and diabetic implications. Bold claims.

Suddenly, CBD is everywhere with options for use including oils, topical creams, capsules, edibles and vapes. Drinks giant Coca Cola announced it was in talks for a cannabis-infused drink. A Kardashian held a CBD-themed baby shower.

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There are cannabis-based products available to buy on the UK market, many of which claim to be CBD-based. Last November, the UK government legalised medicinal cannabis; last month Europe’s largest cannabis producer struck a £5 million deal with a Scottish company to distribute its products across the UK. The press recently reported talks were under way to build the first legal cannabis farm in Scotland.

Lynne Gray is a Director at Burness Paull

So what is the legal position? If medicinal cannabis is legal, why do we still see headlines of those who are ill having their cannabis oil seized?

Cannabis and cannabis resin are controlled Class B drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001, subject to the greatest restrictions around the extent to which it is lawful to import, export, produce, possess, supply and administer. The cultivation, production, supply and possession of Schedule 1 drugs requires a Home Office licence. It may come as a surprise to hear the UK is one of the largest legal cannabis producers in the world, growing half of the world’s legal cannabis, under licence at a farm in East Anglia owned by British Sugar.

It was always possible to license fully tested medicinal cannabis products for sale in the UK. Sativex, a cannabis-based spray has been able to be legally prescribed since 2006. However, the relaxation of the rules in 2018 allows a legal route for prescriptions of cannabis-based products for medicinal use without the requirement for a Home Office licence. That came about after a high-profile campaign by parents of two epilepsy suffers struggling to gain access to the relevant drugs.  

To be legal, doctors on the General Medical Council special register must prescribe them under strictly controlled circumstances.  It is still unlawful to import cannabis-based products for medicinal use to the UK without such a prescription, and reports suggest less than 100 people in the UK have had such prescriptions. The Home Office is, however, open to further applications and companies are operating under licence focussed on researching, developing and licensing cannabinoid-based compounds and therapies.

Products containing CBD are legal as they only contain trace amounts of psychoactive THC.  However, complex regulatory regimes apply depending on whether the product is a controlled substance, a medicine, a novel food or food/food supplement. Any product which contains CBD and claims medicinal benefits is a medicine and must be licensed with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). Yet regulatory complexity is doing little to halt the influx of products hitting the shelves.

A global shift in attitudes and moves towards legalisation of medicinal cannabis is opening doors to investors. Although reputational issues and legalities require consideration, the prospect of high returns may be the draw. Figures suggest the European cannabis market could be worth in excess of £100bn by 2028 and licensing and selling cannabis could net the UK government up to £3.5bn. 

Growth is happening faster than anticipated. It remains to be seen how far that can go, but Scotland is well-placed to take advantage of opportunities presented by this emerging market from providing an opportunity to grow and supply legal cannabis under licence to develop and supply products.

Lynne Gray is a Director at Burness Paull