Why is CBD Legal in the UK When THC is Not?

7 mins read

The surge in the profile of CBD, a derivative of the cannabis plant, has been nothing short of remarkable in the last five or so years. Its emergence onto the health and wellness landscape has been so dramatic that you may be forgiven for thinking that this boom was instigated by a relaxation in cannabis regulations.

When you learn the truth that CBD has been legal in the UK for a long time now, you might wonder why its well-documented utility in the treatment of a wide range of chronic health issues has only just been capitalised on by food supplement makers.

But why is it that the newly re-discovered beneficial CBD is legal in the UK and sold online and on high streets while the regular THC-containing cannabis consumed by our fathers and grandfathers is still subject to strict criminalisation laws? In this post, we will explore the legal landscape with regards to cannabis regulation in the UK.

Hemp vs. Weed: What Is the Difference?

When looking to understand CBD regulation in the UK, it is first necessary to take a look at where it comes from. The vast majority of CBD sold in the UK comes from industrial hemp (cannabis Sativa). It is literally the same species of cannabis that we are all probably familiar with, with a sight exception – “industrial hemp” strains generally contain only a fraction of the THC (0.2% by dry weight). They do, however, contain high levels of cannabidiol or CBD.

So generally speaking, industrial hemp has nowhere near enough THC in it to have any noticeable psychotropic effect when smoked or eaten. You could use science to distil and purify that 0.2% and eventually get some sort of a product, but it is not worth the hassle. After the Second World War Farmers switched to synthetic fabrics in the US and this led to hemp falling out of fashion, despite obvious industrial benefits.

It is interesting to note here that while modern medicine has only just become aware of the health benefits offered by CBD in particular, knowledge of these benefits was not lost on our ancestors. In fact, there are numerous examples of evidence that ancient civilizations from around the world have been using cannabis in all its forms medicinally for the treatment of a wide range of conditions.

CBD: What the Law Says

There has long been some confusion regarding the legal status of CBD in the UK. Much of this confusion stems from a misunderstanding of the regulations. Whereas the sale of products containing THC and a number of other cannabinoids was outlawed in the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act and subsequently upheld in the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001, CBD was never actually covered in this legislation since it has never been deemed a “controlled substance”. Effectively, this means that sale and consumption of CBD have been legal in cases where it contains no THC since 1971.

The Catch
There is a significant catch when we talk about CBD’s legal status in the UK. The hemp that the CBD extract is derived from is subject to a rule that says that the hemp plant itself cannot contain any more than 0.2% THC according to EU regulations. As a result, CBD products are legal in the UK today only if they contain less than this percentage THC and have been “derived from an industrial hemp strain that is EU-approved”.
Gaining a license to sell specific CBD products in the UK is something that we will see happening more next year due to upcoming Novel Foods regulations.

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Will Things Change?

The ongoing outlawing of THC may come as some disappointment to people who believe that full-spectrum CBD oil with THC is more beneficial to the health (due to what is known as the ‘entourage effect’). The recent relaxation in cannabis regulations in Canada and the United States is giving some people cause for optimism that the UK government might soon be pressured into following suit, but at time of writing the legal status of THC does not look set for imminent change..

In the US and Canada, many trace the initial change in public opinion and political will to the discovery that cannabis can help sufferers of several rare forms of epilepsy manage their symptoms. This discovery soon led to the introduction of medical cannabis which was available on prescription, which gradually opened the door for cannabis to be prescribed for other conditions such as anxiety and PTSD.

The UK is still far behind our Atlantic cousins, but hopefully we will see a change in the law soon.


Although the CBD market is only really taking off now, the substance has actually been legal if it contains no THC for almost 50 years in the UK. The other well-known cannabinoid found in cannabis, THC, remains a strictly controlled substance. This has an impact on the type of CBD that can be bought and sold in the UK.

Many people would prefer to be able to buy full-spectrum products which do not have the THC removed because they believe that it acts synergistically with the CBD to boost its effectiveness. However, until the law on THC changes, we will not see any products which contain a combination of CBD and THC anytime soon.