CBD oil legality in the EU: A changing landscape

edited October 14 in Other Political Debate

You’ve probably heard the hype already about the trendy benefits of CBD Oil. It is a natural substance derived from the hemp plant popping up in all kinds of forms in Europe’s food and beauty industry thanks to its medicinal properties.

Today, Europe has the 2nd largest CBD market in the world –only behind North America. From CBD gummies and potato chips to CBD facial masks, every entrepreneur wants in on this booming industry.

As of writing, CBD is legal in most European countries, explaining the meteoric rise in CBD use in the continent. However, it hasn’t been all plain sailing for this budding market –the pun intended.

Enter the EU’s restrictive CBD oil regulations. While the European CBD market is expanding exponentially, the ever-changing rules on CBD legality have proved a major handicap.

Let’s look at what CBD oil is, its legality in Europe, and what the future holds for CBD legality in Europe

What is CBD oil?

Not to be confused with hemp oil, CBD oil is the most popular form of Cannabidiol (CBD) –an active naturally occurring cannabinoid found in cannabis plants. CBD is mainly extracted from the hemp tree and then dissolved into plant-based oils such as olive oil or castor oil to form CBD oil.

Most people use the terms CBD oil and hemp oil interchangeably since both are hemp extracts. However, these two oils couldn’t be more different. For instance, while CBD oil is extracted from the leaves, stem and flowers of the hemp, hemp oil is explicitly obtained from the hemp seeds. What’s more, hemp seeds don’t contain any CBD; hence, hemp oil doesn’t have CBD oil's health benefits.

What about THC, the ingredient that made the cannabis plant famous, you ask. Well, Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is another active cannabinoid mainly found in the marijuana plant –a cousin of the hemp plant. THC is known for its psychoactive effects, which give you the “high.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that CBD oil doesn’t have any of these psychoactive effects, unlike THC. Besides, since the hemp plant only contains very low THC levels (less than 0.2%), most European countries’ CBD regulations stipulate that products use hemp-extracted CBD only. More on this later.

Is CBD oil legal in the EU?

While it has been legal to cultivate and supply hemp plants for hemp fibre (with less than 0.2% THC) in the EU for some time now, CBD oil legality around Europe is quite complex.

That said, Europe stands out as one of the most liberal regions in terms of cannabis legalisation. Today, CBD oil is legal in almost all countries in Europe. However, there is still a lack of consensus on CBD products' legality –the only consensus seems to be on the use of CBD extracted from the hemp plant.

For instance, in the UK, farmers are allowed to grow hemp as long as you have a licence from the UK Home Office. However, you can only use this hemp for its fibre and seed oil. And as we noted earlier, the seeds do not contain any CBD.

Therefore, while the use of CBD products — derived from hemp containing less than 0.2% THC — and growing hemp is perfectly legal in the UK, you cannot harvest and process hemp flowers and leaves for CBD oil, among other products.

In other countries such as Belgium, Greece and Switzerland, the regulations allow for the cultivation and processing of hemp flower.

Switzerland was among the first countries to allow the sale of hemp flower. Besides, their regulations allow for a higher THC limit (1%), which means they have high-quality CBD buds.

Other countries with notably high THC limits include Italy (0.6%) and Austria (0.3%).

Here is a list of countries in Europe where hemp flower and CBD products are legal:

  • Switzerland
  • Belgium
  • Luxembourg
  • Austria
  • Spain
  • Czech Republic
  • Greece
  • Poland

It’s worth noting that while the sale and use of CBD flowers is illegal in countries such as Italy, France, Germany, the UK, Netherlands, Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, CBD products are entirely legal – subject to local laws.

CBD is completely illegal in Andorra, Albania, Armenia, Belarus, Lithuania and Slovakia.

CBD regulation as a novel food

In January 2019, the EU, through the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), directed all cannabinoid-infused food products to be approved as novel foods. Well, although this new regulation is not mandatory, most countries are applying it and tightening their laws around the CBD market.

A substance is considered a novel food if it was not consumed significantly before 1997. This means companies manufacturing CBD products such as oils, cookies and drinks must have a novel food license before selling them within the EU.

The idea behind this regulation is to make sure CBD products are:

  • Safer for human consumption, and;
  • properly labelled to prevent misleading consumers.

The call for CBD's inclusion in the EU’s Novel Food Catalogue has led to an uproar across the cannabis industry. While some people believe it will make CBD products safer, CBD manufacturers see it as an extra financial and regulatory burden.

Classification of CBD as a narcotic by EU

Before the dust had settled on EU’s regulation of CBD as a novel food, the European Commission (EC) decided to pause all Novel Food applications for CBD products. They intend to classify CBD as a narcotic since it is extracted from the hemp plant's flowers.

This is based on the UN’s Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs from 1961. The treaty states that “extracts and tinctures” of hemp’s flowering tops are classed as narcotics.

If classified as a narcotic, this will stifle current Europe’s CBD market. For instance, you’ll be unable to retail CBD products on the European market legally. Besides, this is likely to hinder cannabinoid research and innovation in Europe while also stifling opportunities for a legal and regulated CBD industry.

However, as expected, the European Industrial Hemp Association (EIHA) has come out and rejected the decision. The trade group decries this controversial policy is against both the EU’s green ambition and the growing CBD demand in Europe.

There are valid fears that enforcing this policy might create a large unregulated grey CBD market leading to low-quality products and improper labeling.

A changing landscape: What the future holds for CBD oil in Europe

Enforcing prohibitions on the current ever-growing CBD market will be costly. What’s more, with the economic contraction facing the EU countries in the post-COVID-19 era, member states are unlikely to invest heavily in CBD-focused polices.

Besides, we already have countries such as the UK deviating from the EU’s novel food rule. TheUK’s Food Safety Association (FSA)already has plans to operate its own independent novel food approval program in 2021.

Therefore, CBD manufacturers will not have to worry about EC’s decision to pause the novel food applications. The program will allow UK operators to submit applications for CBD extracted from hemp flowers opening clear pathways to legal CBD sales.

On the other hand, the European Commission is yet to issue a final decision on their recommendation as they await on the UN’s Committee on Narcotic Drugs (CND) vote regarding the amendment of the 1961 cannabis treaty. The main proposals involve deleting the extracts and tinctures of the cannabis category and clarifying the control of CBD products with less than 0.2% THC.

It is difficult to tell when this vote will happen. However, one thing is certain; the decision will be quite disruptive – not only in Europe but also throughout the world’s CBD market.

That said, Europe’s CBD demand is on an unstoppable upward growth. As we wait on the regulatory bodies’ verdict, it is always advisable to use CBD products from registered and trusted companies. Also, remember to check for third-party lab reports to confirm the product's safety and legality before purchase.

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