You’ve probably seen CBD oil being sold online and in high-street stores across the UK. But how does it differ from medical cannabis? Despite coming from the same plant, the two are somewhat different.
Most notably, whereas CBD oil is available over-the-counter, medical cannabis products can only be accessed with a prescription from a specialist doctor.
The two also differ in their formulation, uses, relevant regulations, and other ways. In this article, we’re going to explain the difference between medical cannabis and CBD oil and how you can access them in the UK.
What is Medical Cannabis?
The term medical cannabis refers to any cannabis-based preparation used to relieve symptoms. Such products can be divided into two main categories: whole-plant products and pharmaceutical drugs derived from cannabis.
Whole-plant products, which include the dried plant, oils, and capsules, are typically sourced from regular cannabis, which is often rich in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the most abundant cannabinoid.
Cannabis-based pharmaceuticals, on the other hand, can be sourced from either THC-rich or CBD-rich plants using a proprietary process.
In the UK, medical cannabis is only available via prescription from a specialist doctor, because THC is considered an illegal substance except when prescribed.
How to Access Medical Cannabis in the UK
In the UK, medical cannabis can be accessed in two ways: through the NHS or a private cannabis clinic.
Obtaining a prescription through the NHS is notoriously difficult because the government’s health experts argue there isn’t enough research evidence to verify the safety and efficacy of cannabis.
For now, the NHS has only approved three specific cannabis-based pharmaceutical drugs for three specific conditions:
- Epidyolex, a drug containing 99.9% cannabidiol (CBD). It can be prescribed for two severe types of childhood epilepsy: Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome. It should be useful for any other type of epilepsy but the license is specifically for those two rare childhood syndromes.
- Sativex, a drug containing a 1:1 mixture of CBD and THC and other cannabis compounds. Its license is for spasticity (muscle stiffness and spasms) caused by multiple sclerosis although it can be used for other indications but they would be “off label” uses which means it is legally prescribed but outside of the actual licensed indications.
- Nabilone, a drug containing a man-made form of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive component of cannabis. It can be prescribed for vomiting and nausea caused by chemotherapy.
Epidyolex and Sativex are produced by British company GW Pharmaceuticals and have undergone clinical trials, whereas Nabilone is made by a U.S. company.
The second option for accessing medical cannabis in the UK is private clinics, such as Medical Cannabis Clinics. Although they come with a cost, private clinics have two distinct advantages.
Firstly, they can prescribe cannabis to patients more easily for a much wider range of conditions, including various types of chronic pain, neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and migraines, and psychiatric disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), without the inhibiting bureaucracy of the NHS.
Additionally, private clinics can more easily prescribe not only cannabis-based pharmaceuticals but the complete range of cannabis-derived products, including the whole, dried plant.
What is CBD Oil?
CBD oil refers to a CBD-rich extract made from hemp, a variety of cannabis characterized by high CBD and extremely low THC levels. Under UK law, such products are legal as long as they contain no more than 1 mg THC per container and the seed produces a plant with less than 0.2% THC.
These products are made with either pure CBD or a whole-plant extract with multiple cannabinoids (including trace amounts of THC) and other hemp-derived compounds, such as terpenes. The extract itself is dissolved in a carrier oil such as MCT oil to help the body absorb CBD.
CBD oil is rapidly growing in popularity in the UK and other countries as a way to support overall health and address specific health issues.
However, it’s not considered medicine and can be purchased online and in high-street stores without requiring a doctor’s prescription.
Instead, CBD oil is regulated as a food supplement, so manufacturers are not allowed to make any claims about its beneficial effects for any disease or symptom.
What’s the Difference?
The main difference between medical cannabis and CBD oil is their legal status.
THC (and a few other cannabinoids) is illegal in the UK unless prescribed by the appropriate doctor. Medical cannabis can only be accessed via prescription from a qualified, specialist doctor (usually a hospital consultant and not a GP). CBD oil, on the other hand, is legal and can be purchased over-the-counter as long as it meets the 1 mg rule.
Another key difference is how they’re sourced. Most medical cannabis products are derived from “regular” cannabis, which contains higher THC and lower CBD levels than the hemp plant. This also means medical cannabis can sometimes produce a “high”, depending on the amount of THC, although this is unusual as it is normally prescribed with at least some CBD which counteracts the “high” effect of the THC.
CBD oil, on the other hand, is derived from hemp, a variety of cannabis with high CBD but low THC levels (below 0.2%). This small amount is not enough to cause intoxication.
Medical cannabis and CBD oil also differ somewhat in their uses. Whereas medical cannabis is typically taken for more serious conditions that don’t respond well to standard treatment, such as chronic pain and rare types of epilepsy, CBD oil is mostly utilised for improving everyday health concerns such as anxiety and poor sleep.
The way people administer medical cannabis and CBD oil are also different. CBD oil is typically applied sublingually (under the tongue), while medical cannabis can be used in a wide variety of ways that depend on the specific type of product.
For example, dried cannabis can be vaporised (smoking remains illegal), capsules are ingested, whereas oils can be used sublingually or orally.
Finally, another notable difference is the formulation. Medical cannabis products can be rich in THC, although they often contain CBD or a mixture of the two, in a whole-plant formulation rich in all cannabinoids, terpenes, and other cannabis compounds.
CBD oil, on the other hand, will always contain high levels of CBD. It comes in three major formulations:
- CBD isolate (pure CBD)
- Full-spectrum hemp extract (CBD and all other hemp cannabinoids and compounds)
- Broad-spectrum hemp extract (same as full-spectrum but with all traces of THC removed)
In short, medical cannabis and CBD oil are both products made from the cannabis plant. That similarity aside, the two are pretty different.
CBD oil is non-intoxicating and mainly taken for everyday health issues such as anxiety and poor sleep, although some people also use it for more serious conditions, such as treatment-resistant epilepsy. You can buy it in high-street stores all over the UK as well as online.
In contrast, medical cannabis can cause intoxication because of the possible THC content. However, this is rare as the doctor will usually prescribe a CBD product as well (or a product which contains both CBD and THC) and the CBD counteracts the THC “high” effect. Although it can be used for the same health issues as CBD oil, medical cannabis is typically reserved for more difficult-to-treat symptoms and health conditions.