Poor testing standards and lax regulation means that some CBD products in the UK have illegal levels of THC or no CBD at all. Now the industry is starting to regulate itself
Depending on who you ask, CBD oil is either a cure-all or the snake oil of our age. It’s been touted as a treatment for epilepsy, psychosis and anxiety and has found its way into chocolates, gummies and chewing gum, adding up to an overall market that is set to be worth almost £1 billion per year by 2025 in the UK alone.
But while the argument over whether a bottle of CBD oil can really calm your nerves rumbles on, there’s a far more pertinent problem: that bottle might not even have any CBD in it.
Lab tests from the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis (CMC) in June found that 62 per cent of the UK high street products studied didn’t contain the CBD content promised on the label. One product (retailing for £90) had no measurable amount of the non-toxic cannabis compound at all. And where lacking in advertised cannabidiol, some products were packing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the intoxicating – and illegal – chemical that causes a cannabis high. According to the report nearly half of tested products had low levels of THC or cannabinol (CBN), another psychoactive substance.
And although these products are unlikely to get anyone dazed and confused, they indicate that the CBD industry’s standards are hardly high. So how are the CBD companies slipping illegal cannabis compounds onto high street shelves? And why aren’t the regulators spotting them?
“It’s not like people are wilfully doing this,” says Shomi Malik, development director at the CMC. “People don’t know what they don’t know.” This ignorance can be partly blamed on the CBD labs’ unfamiliarity with cannabis chemistry. Packed with over 400 unique compounds – which have been notoriously difficult to study due to the drug’s prohibition – cannabis isn’t your average cosmetic. And as its medicinal use only became legal in the UK last November, the country is still lacking qualified cannabis chemists. “It is a lack of domain experts in the field,” Malik says. And in the CBD labs, this lack of experts is causing some clumsy errors.
The problem, Malik says, is that many testing machines are way off the mark. “When you calibrate a [testing] machine [..] I need to tell it what peak is THC, what peak is CBD, and all the other cannabinoids. To be able to do that, you need to buy standards,” he says. “So you buy highly refined pharmaceutical-grade THC. And then once you’ve calibrated it, your machine knows what THC looks like. Now, if you buy a standard from a company that isn’t accredited, then you’re starting off on the wrong foot in a massive way.”
According to the CMC, these aren’t one-in-a-million mistakes, they’re easy-to-make errors that could be avoided if more lab analysts in the UK knew how to work with cannabis material. But while that may be the manufacturers’ excuse, the UK’s health and safety regulators may need a better one.
“There’s no real quality control and manufacturing standards,” says Harry Sumnall, a professor of substance use at Liverpool John Moores University. “In the UK, we have a number of regulatory agencies which could be looking at this, including the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) – all of those organisations are under resourced […] so it’s difficult for them to provide that oversight, which they might do for other products, because the [CBD] market’s too big.”
Having grown from a botanical novelty to a £300 million market in just three years or so, it’s not surprising that CBD’s retail demand has outpaced its regulation. Thankfully, there are a couple of rules under UK law. Any claims around medical benefits are a strict no-go – CBD is only considered medically beneficial when given in clinical doses – and any measurable amount of THC in a product requires a license from the Home Office. But according to the CMC report, this latter rule is already being broken, and thanks to global media exposure and wellness hype, retail CBD products are already inextricably tied to compound’s medical benefits in the public eye.
“CBD is all over the media, and has been presented as a miracle substance,” says Sumnall. “There’s often a focus on big US celebrities launching products ranges, and some of the claims they make that perhaps those sorts entrepreneurs wouldn’t be able to make here in the UK because of medicines regulations.”
So with rules already being broken and little oversight from regulators, how can people be confident that their CBD products are safe?
“Thankfully, we’ve not come across any issues around harmful CBD products in the UK,” says Sumnall. “But just look across the Atlantic to the USA where there’s an unregulated market around THC-based vaping oils. And we know that poorly regulated markets can be associated with harms, so there [are] concerns there.”
Fortunately, several studies have found CBD to be well tolerated in most people and the World Health Organisation has said that “to date, there is no evidence of public health related problems associated with the use of pure CBD.” But with UK testing so unreliable, it’s not the CBD that’s got people like Sumnall and Malik concerned about consumer health. It’s everything else the retail products could contain. After all, one of the CBD products from the CMC’s report contained 3.8 per cent ethanol, legally making it an alcoholic beverage. So to help limit such contaminants, the CMC recently launched a new review of analytical testing in the UK CBD industry, which it hopes will help establish robust, standardised methods for analytical labs.
“We at the CMC will be setting up the standard, that [says], ‘this is the quality we want in the testing of these samples’,” says Parveen Bhatarah, CMC’s regulatory and compliance lead. “So we’ll be setting up all those standards and sharing them with the CMC members, and hopefully sharing it with the FSA to ensure that we are actually sowing the seeds [as to] how we are going to regulate this market.”
One such CMC member that will be taking part in the new review is Dragonfly CBD, a cannabidiol brand stocked by Boots pharmacies and Harrods department store. “We became a member of the CMC because I think it’s really good to have insightful conversations with those across a lot of different parts of cannabis,” says Hannah Skingle, Dragonfly’s chief operating officer. “[As a CMC member], we consider how we can properly regulate this market in its current state and what we as companies, ethically, should do to really ensure our customers are getting the highest quality product.”
Dragonfly CBD is also bound to the CMC’s recent CBD charter, which commits every member to work with accredited labs and keep to a marketing code that prohibits inaccurate labelling and any reference to medical claims, sexuality or violence. Along with the CMC’s testing review, the charter is another sign that the UK’s CBD industry might be finally maturing and accepting accountability. But there are some who wonder if this kind of internal regulation is ultimately for the benefit of CBD consumers or companies.
“Because of these difficulties in regulation, you have organisations like the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis – they have stepped into this role,” says Harry Sumnall. “Even though very well intentioned, it’s very much a form of self-regulation, which might actually be modelled on the interests of their members and their donors.”
“I think in an ideal world, we’d have much better resourced regulatory agencies, which are independent, such as the FSA and the MHRA, who would be doing this job,” Sumnall says. “So it’s understandable that self-regulation has emerged in the absence of those agencies having that capacity.”
But ultimately, whether it arises internally or externally, any form of lab standardisation should benefit CBD customers. By equipping themselves with the same machines and standards, there’s a good chance labs will be able to spot illegal impurities and finally agree on their products’ CBD contents. And as funding new equipment and training will likely drive up businesses’ production costs, the move could also help see the end of the smaller, CBD companies, which may have always been light on the testing.
“I think as the industry grows, we will whittle out those who may be entrepreneurial… and they’re just kind of working it out,” says Skingle. But, she warns, while regulatory oversight remains light, the ultimate responsibility of making sure CBD products contain what they say the do will rest with the CBD firms themselves. “It’s important not only to get third party test, but to also internally test yourself and really ask questions to your testers like, ‘what are the standards that you’re setting?’ Because, realistically, there aren’t any.”