Reed Smith Client Alerts

Recently, three British MPs went to Canada on a fact-finding cross-party trip to consider the effects of a more relaxed regulatory environment in respect of cannabis. After the trip, the MPs predicted that the UK would follow Canada’s lead and legalise cannabis for adult use within a decade.

The recent trend towards decriminalization of cannabis in other countries suggests they may be right, but in the meantime, a proliferation of products containing extracts from cannabis plants are appearing in UK stores. This Client Alert sets out the current rules regarding the regulation of cannabis products and medicinal cannabis in the UK.

Cannabis plant

What substances are at issue?

Cannabinoids are the chemical substances found in cannabis. Over 100 different cannabinoids have been linked to the cannabis plant. The two that are most relevant to the ongoing medical and legalisation debate are cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The key difference between CBD and THC is that THC has psychoactive properties, meaning users experience a high from its use, whereas CBD has no psychoactive properties (it contains little or no THC).

What is the relevant legislation?

The main relevant UK legislation is the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (the Act) and the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 (as amended by the Misuse of Drugs (Amendments) (Cannabis and Licence Fees) (England, Wales and Scotland) Regulations 2018) (the Regulations).

In the UK cannabis, cannabinol and cannabinol derivatives are classified as Class B drugs under Schedule 2 of the Act; as such, they are controlled drugs. Cannabinol derivatives include tetrahydro derivatives. THC, a tetrahydro derivative of cannabinol, is a controlled drug under the Act. CBD is not listed in any schedule of the Act and so is not, of itself, a controlled drug.

The Regulations set out how controlled drugs can be used legally for legitimate purposes and the various restrictions on import, export, production, possession and supply that apply, as well as the different labelling, record-keeping, destruction and safety requirements that are applicable based on the schedule to the Regulations that governs the controlled drug. Cannabis, cannabinol and cannabinol derivatives are included in Schedule 1 of the Regulations; therefore, they are subject to Schedule 1 restrictions. CBD is not listed in any of the schedules of the Regulations, so it is not controlled by the Regulations.

After a review of cannabis regulation in the UK announced by the Home Secretary last year (prompted by the cases of two children who had been denied access to cannabis oil to control their epileptic seizures), the Regulations were amended in November, 2018 to create a new category of generally unlicensed cannabis-based products – called “cannabis-based product for medicinal use in humans” (CBPM) in order to allow unlicensed cannabis-based products to be prescribed for medicinal purposes, provided certain requirements are met.

Restrictions and licensing requirements

In order to legally produce, possess, supply, cultivate, import or export cannabis products, there are various regulatory requirements that must be met, depending on whether the product contains a controlled drug or is classified as a CBPM. It is important to remember that even if the end product is an exempt product or a CBPM, it is still an offence under the Act to cultivate the cannabis plant without a Home Office cultivation licence, which will be granted only if certain conditions are met.