British Regulator Declares Cannabis Compound a Medicine

And then forces all suppliers to shut down.


Don Goofy / Flickr

Last Thursday the United Kingdom's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) officially announced it was designating cannabidiol (CBD)—a non-psychoactive cannabis compound—as a medicine that can be administered for the purpose of "restoring, correcting, or modifying physiological functions."

This means that CBD products, which British law has been silent on until now, will be regulated like other medical products in the U.K., requiring medical "marketing authorization" before they can be sold. This is according to a letter sent to 18 CBD manufacturers shortly before the MHRA published its statement.

Several voices here in the United States have been quick to report this as a step forward for marijuana reform, with Time referring to it as a "big win for the campaign to legalize cannabis" and Michael Collins of the Drug Policy Alliance saying this was "definitely a positive development."

The reaction from marijuana reform groups in the U.K., however, has been a mix of confusion and hostility, with many worrying that this will actually harm the interests of Brits who use CBD products.

The group Cannabis Law Reform (CLEAR), which campaigns for the full legalization of marijuana, has called the decision "an unholy mess" that is "endangering public health." Another group has started an online petition asking MHRA to reconsider its move.

Their concern is that the sudden application of medical regulations to the manufacture and sale of CBD will actually prevent those who use such products—which are used to treat a variety conditions including multiple sclerosis and epilepsy—from accessing the stuff by shutting down their suppliers.

Indeed, the letter MHRA sent to CBD manufacturers gave them 28 days to obtain their medical marketing authorization or otherwise cease operations. But getting this type of authorization is no small ordeal. The application fee alone is 92,753 pounds (around $115,000), and the process takes a minimum of 210 days.

It's now unclear whether any of the CBD products currently being sold on the British market will remain there after those 28 days are up. Crispin Blunt, a Conservative member of parliament who favors marijuana legalization, has demanded clarification from the MHRA on how exactly CBD products will be evaluated, and whether the the agency will consider regulating them as food supplements until they can achieve medical authorization. So far all the MHRA has promised to do is to provide "regulatory guidance" to those companies seeking marketing authorization for CBD.

So while the British government is for the first time recognizing the medical benefits of a cannabis product, it looks like those medical benefits will off-limits for patients for the foreseeable future.