Walk down any UK high street and you may do a double take, because a growing number of shops are proudly selling products derived from cannabis – and yes, they are legal.
Cannabidiol, more commonly known as CBD, has well and truly hit the mainstream, with some of the UK’s best known pharmacies, health stores, department stores and even supermarkets stocking CBD oil, beauty products and foods.
Advocates of the products claim they have a seemingly endless list of health benefits, from easing anxiety and reducing inflammation to curing acne and eliminating the pain of high heels.
But leading experts tell HuffPost UK the commercial CBD market is largely unregulated, meaning it’s impossible to know what is in these products and what impact (if any) they may be having on our health.
On Monday the Food Standards Agency announced it would be taking a firmer stance on CBD foods and supplements, working with local authorities to remove ingestible products from the market that have not undergone a pre-market safety assessment.
What Do We Know About CBD So Far?
There are more than 100 chemical compounds in cannabis and CBD is just one of them. Most CBD products available on the high street state that they do not contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the compound in cannabis that gets you high. Medicines containing CBD are now available on NHS prescription after clinical trials found them to be effective in easing symptoms of conditions such as epilepsy.
Dr Esther Blessing, an assistant professor at New York University, who has conducted research into the effects of CBD, explains that just because the compound has been approved for use for some medical conditions doesn’t mean we can automatically say it works for others.
“For example, for epilepsy, multiple clinical trials showing solid evidence have led to an FDA approval (in the US),” she says, “whereas for anxiety, preliminary human experimental studies show promising results, but no clinical trials have been completed in people with anxiety. For pain and inflammation, human experimental studies haven’t been completed, but rodent model studies are promising.”
The medical data on CBD is limited, but evidence of the effects of beauty and wellness CBD products is non-existent.
What’s The Difference Between Medical And Commercial CBD?
Professor Philip McGuire, an expert in psychiatry and cognitive neuroscience at King’s College London, tells HuffPost UK the CBD products available to buy are “completely different” to those tested in clinical trials for medical purposes.
“These [products] typically contain low concentrations of CBD mixed in with other cannabinoids, and there are wide variations in what they contain,” he explains. “It is often difficult to know what the concentration of the different ingredients in these preparations is from just looking at the product label.”
Dr Blessing agrees: “It’s important to understand that results [on the medical benefits of CBD] came from rigorous research where the exact dose of a pure CBD formulation was known. For the vast majority of beauty and wellness products[...] studies on how they affect specific outcomes haven’t been done.”
The Problem With Regulations
Until now, CBD products advertised as wellness items have been largely unregulated. “Because these products are not licensed as medicines, the controls over what they contain are far less than they would be if they were medicines,” explains Roger Knaggs, associate professor in clinical pharmacy practice at the University of Nottingham.
“There can be a lot of variation between products, but also variation between individual batches, which may well have an impact on the effects that people experience.”
The latest announcement from the Food Standards Authority (FSA) will make it harder to sell ingestible CBD products such as capsule supplements and CBD oil, the latter usually taken by placing three drops under the tongue.
The FSA now recognises CBD foods and supplements as “novel foods” – all foods must receive authorisation before going to market, but under EU regulations, products classed as ”novel foods” go through an extra layer of vigorous testing, including tests to ensure they contain the ingredients listed.
Sellers of ingestible CBD products will have to apply for a new novel foods license. “Each novel food application is individually assessed and, dependent on the food, there may be more regulations/checks to be made before it is approved or denied by European Food Safety Authority,” an FSA spokesperson told HuffPost UK. This could take a number of months in each case.
The FSA is now working with local authorities to remove items from shelves that do not comply with the EU Novel Food Regulations. But the new food regulations won’t change the selling of CBD products for external use, such as face washes and creams – and the global thirst for CBD products seems unquenchable.
It’s A Growing Market
Market researchers The Brightfield Group estimate the global CBD industry could be worth $22 billion (£16.7 billion) by 2020. There’s been such as boom in the US, that Chris Burggraeve, a former executive of Coca-Cola, described CBD as “the new avocado toast”.
The list of celebrities who’ve pledged their conversion to CBD is ever-growing – the latest Hollywood trend is to rub CBD oil on your feet before donning high heels on the red carpet. So could it work?
Professor Knaggs is sceptical: “I think one has to realise that, like with many products, there may well be a very substantial placebo response, and that may well be contributing towards any effect that people experience.”
Are There Risks Associated With CBD Products?
Last year The World Health Organisation produced a review of evidence around cannabidiol and said: “to date, there is no evidence of recreational use of CBD or any public health-related problems associated with the use of pure CBD.”
However, both Professor Knaggs and Dr Blessing warn that it’s hard to know if you are using pure CBD. “Although some products will claim that they contain either low or zero THC, there is no guarantee of that necessarily,” says Professor Knaggs.
THC can be dangerous even in small quantities, adds Dr Blessing: “Because very small doses of THC (8 mg) may impair alertness, thinking, driving etc, this could be dangerous. Another danger is that CBD may interact with other medications, she adds: “People taking medications should always tell their doctor if they’re are trying CBD.”
All things considered, should we stay away from CBD products for now?
“I personally wouldn’t try these products because I like to know what I’m taking, and they’re often very expensive,” says Dr Blessing. “But I do think CBD at the right dose could be very effective for certain conditions, so I hope that research can provide clearer answers in future.”