A recent article in the respected science and technology magazine, Wired, has caused something of a stir among the UK CBD community. Titled ‘The UK’s messy CBD oil industry is finally starting to clean up its act’, the piece explores the state of CBD regulation and testing standards in the UK, claiming that some products have illegal levels of THC or no CBD at all.
The writer, Leo Bear-McGuinness, reports that lab tests from the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis (CMC) discovered that 62% of products examined didn’t contain the CBD content claimed on the label. This led to comments on social media from Peter Reynolds, a cannabis expert who heads up CLEAR and previously played key roles in the Cannabis Trade Association (CTA) and CannaPro, claiming it was “a murky story of PR spin and half-truths”.
We reached out to Peter to ask him to clarify his comments. “It’s a cheap marketing stunt,” he said. “Yes, there are non-compliant companies, but the vast majority of the companies supplying British markets are legitimate, professional organisations doing their best to be compliant and deliver high-quality products.”
“The way they [CMC] have presented their survey is that most of the products on the British market are rubbish and the only products on the market that are any good come from our members.”
We contacted Shomi Malik, the development director at the CMC, who explained the need for this kind of study. “We’ve invested heavily in experts to be able to raise the standards for the industry,” he says. “There are a lot of people getting benefit from these products and there’s no regulatory framework.”
“And through discussions with regulators, it seems they need the industry to take the lead on this or they’ll be regulating an area they don’t understand. The industry doesn’t win, the people doing the research don’t win, and ultimately the consumers don’t win. They’ll be regulating an area with no understanding and there’ll be a blanket ban on products.”
Peter disagrees. “For years – two years before the CMC even existed – the industry has been involved in very serious and very successful efforts at self-regulation,” he says. “Most products in the UK CBD market from reputable suppliers, if you buy from a CTA member, or a CannaPro member, you can be confident that the product you’re getting is legitimate, legal and it is what it says on the tin.”
However, one key point is that the CMC didn’t list which products they tested, and which contained incorrect or illegal products. When asked about this, Shomi said “The products we chose are representative of where the market is at right now, so it’s a mix of online and high street. Obviously, we can’t test everything but the 29 products we tested cover a lot of the retail space.”
When asked specifically if major players such as Love CBD were included, Shomi said he wasn’t at liberty to say, but Dr Parveen Bhatarah, who covers regulatory and compliance issues at the CMC, responded saying “It’s immaterial which companies products we tested, the challenge here is that there is no standardisation in the analytical matter.”
It seems this issue is the cause of Peter Reynold’s objection to the Wired article. “If they mentioned any brands, it would demonstrate that they are none of the major brands,” he said. “LoveHemp, Canabidol, British Cannabis, Aurora CBD or Hope CBD – these are companies that produce a very high-quality product. And if they’d announced the names of the companies they looked at, it would show that they were none of these – that they were fly-by-night operations. In other words, they cherry-picked the results of their survey to choose only the results that came up badly.”
In response, Shomi clarified the position of the CMC. “Whilst it would have been my preference to test everything for everything, due to the significant costs involved, compromises have to be made,” he said. “We chose thirty of the most popular oil and tincture products from both online and high street sellers. The aim of the exercise wasn’t to ‘out’ them, but to demonstrate the challenges the industry faces.”
While writing this article, we were contacted by Rory Kirkwood, from The Academy of Medical Cannabis, a group who aim to educate clinicians about medical cannabis products. “It’s distinctly uncontroversial to suggest that the health supplements market is poor on the regulatory front,” he said. “These are the kinds of issues that need to be resolved. It’s a nascent market and there’s still ample opportunity for a backlash should the worst outcomes of lacking regulation happen to hit it.”
Layton Brooks, director of online CBD shop CBD Shopy, agrees that regulation is inevitable – it’s just a case of how long it takes. “I think the CTA are doing a great job of self-regulating a market, but in reality, a government standard should be set for all CBD products, which’ll remove cowboy operations and improve consumer confidence,” he said. “The issue will be how companies adhere to this and maintain licensing, without forcing smaller businesses to shutdown. Lessons can be learned from online finance, where direct lenders and marketing companies have the same responsibilities in terms of product messaging, with lenders required to abide by more stringent due diligence processes to be licensed. It would ensure all products available to consumers meet standards whilst still allowing business to grow.”
It’s clear that the UK CBD industry is in a complex place right now. Some commentators, such as Peter Reynolds, claim regulation is working well, and the actions of a minority of bad actors shouldn’t be allowed to tarnish an entire industry, while organisations such as the CMC want across-the-board regulation to lead to a more reliable and standardised market. What’s for certain is that, much like current events in UK politics, the topic of CBD regulation is set to run and run.