Published: 06:00, 17 August 2019
For decades, cannabis was associated only with the rise in recreational drug use and the seemingly endless debate over its legalisation.
But today, derivatives from the plant are being viewed not as a potential threat to the health of users, but of medical benefit.
And as society changes its perception, a huge industry has grown up around it. So what’s changed?
Well, nothing really, but what you find being offered in our high streets as a medicine or in products as diverse as e-cigarettes and sweets, is very different to that smoked or consumed.
In short, cannabis comprises more than 100 compounds known as cannabinoids. Among these is tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC - the controlled psychoactive substance chiefly responsible for the ‘high’ experienced by those smoking it.
However, another is cannabidiol (CBD). It has none of the THC and, in a pure form, is thought to have medical benefits.
In fact, last November, the government allowed a highly purified liquid version to be prescribed on the NHS. Worth noting, however, is that it has yet to be licensed and is prescribed only for particular rare forms of epilepsy.
But since the medical benefits have emerged, CBD has grown into an industry which industry experts suggest could top £1billion by 2025.
If THC is not present, it can be sold as long as no medicinal benefits are claimed. It also has to come from plants grown by industrial hemp producers, not a bloke down the pub.
It has created a boom in the use of CBD oil.
From ranges in independent stores across the county, shoppers will even have noticed cannabis products in high street chains.
So just what levels of CBD do everything from oils to lip balms to infused pillows - all claiming to potentially aid ailments from anxiety to insomnia, chronic pain to inflammation - have in them?
The answer is probably not what you expect.
A study commissioned by the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis (CMC) which examined 30 different products available in UK shops found several worrying issues.
It found 38% of the products tested had less than 50% of the advertised CBD content. One product had no CBD at all.
Perhaps most worryingly, 45% of the selected products had measurable levels of THC (on average around 0.04%) or another compound, cannabinol (CBN), which is thought by some to have psychoactive effects.
As a consequence, they were technically illegal in the UK.
To add to the concerns, one product had 3.8% ethanol - above the level which qualifies it as an alcoholic drink. In addition, seven products had levels of solvents and heavy metals which put them above food safety limits.
In light of the report the CMC has called for robust self-regulation from the industry.
Simon Bell, who owns Kent CBD - an Aylesford-based business selling cannabis products, feels strongly about taking the product seriously and being responsible.
Consumers buying some of his products can trace the batches and see independent lab reports on what they are taking. He also stays away from CBD- infused products like sweets.
He explains: “At the end of the day when you sell it as sweets you are going down a road you don’t need to go down.
“Some brands are taking away what CBD is for. It’s there to help people, not as a retail product.”
He claims products he stocks have helped customers to cope with arthritis, period pain, and skin blemishes among other ailments.
Despite its reported medical benefits he says he has had to fight to open bank accounts, advertise, and find a premises in the face of stigma attached to cannabis products and their association with illicit drugs.
“It’s been a hell of a battle because it’s got a stigma around it,” he said. “As soon as I say I’m selling cannabis products the doors are shut and the curtains come down. One day it will be OK but at the moment it is incredibly frustrating.”
CBD is termed a ‘novel food’ by the Food Standards Agency - which means it was not widely consumed prior to 1997 meaning the impact of consumption has not been sufficiently monitored. The agency has launched a consultation with local authorities, businesses, and other government departments to ensure compliance to regulations.
One of the newest companies trying to break into the UK market is Ignite. At a launch event on the terrace of a trendy London hotel, marketing reps poured out sparkling wine to journalists and offered free samples of CBD e-cigarettes, lip balm, and oil in a range of flavours - all packaged like cosmetics.
Caitlin Lockridge, director of public relations for Ignite, which also sells similar products in North America, said: “In this industry regulations seem to change every week - it’s what we expect.
“I foresee a lot of regulations going away in the next couple of years. CBD is going to be the norm.”
For those on the production end, things are just as troublesome.
While producing CBD in the UK is legal, hemp farmers are forbidden from extracting the oil from the the plant’s flower bud meaning CBD oil invariably comes from abroad - depriving growers of potential profits.
And in case you were wondering, the government says it has no intentions of relaxing laws on the recreational use of cannabis.
'It's really helped me'
Around two million Brits have used CBD products for medical uses in the last year.
Among them is 71-year-old Peter Hart who, for the last four years, has suffered with a tremor making it impossible for him to carry out everyday tasks most people take for granted.
As his condition worsened he found himself unable to do something as simple as picking up a cup of tea without spilling it.
However, for the last 18 months the Margate resident has seen a dramatic improvement thanks to cannabis oil.
“A friend recommended it to me and I gave it a try - the results were startling and I have been using it ever since,” he said.
“It’s calmed the tremor down tremendously. I still can’t hold a mug by the handle but I couldn’t even get one off the counter without spilling it before. A simple thing like putting a fork of food to my mouth was quite an adventure.
“When I was diagnosed the doctor gave me medicine which I still take now and then but I find the cannabis oil much more effective than the 90 pills a week they gave me.”
As well as helping to control his involuntary shaking, the retired security guard has also seen his symptoms stabilise. Before, they kept worsening.
Mr Hart noticed an improvement within just three days of taking CBD oil.
“One day I got up in the morning, put two drops under my tongue, and about an hour later went downstairs to make a cup of tea,” he remembered. “I picked the kettle up and normally that would be a two-hand job but I did it with just one hand and spilled very little of it.
“I get a piece of paper and sign my name and you can see it getting better and better and better every day. Before using the CBD it looked like a spider having an epileptic fit.”
More by this authorWilliam Janes