Is CBD marketing giving people false hope in the quest towards the legalisation of cannabis?

The health industry isn’t the only party guilty of giving false hope in relation to medicinal cannabis, the government has also, perhaps unintentionally, pushed similarly idealistic messages about health benefits

Ian Hamilton
Sunday 04 August 2019 12:38 BST
David Lammy visits cannabis factory in Canada

Cannabidiol (CBD) products are popping up everywhere from beauty products to drinks and more. Like the gold rush, we now have cannabis fever with the market estimated to be worth £16bn over the next decade.

It’s part of a push seen this week by MP David Lammy, who is convinced that as we obtain sanctioned access to medicinal cannabis, recreational access will and should surely follow.

But are we ignoring key issues in the industry? Without business investment and know-how, for example, many medicines and health products won’t make it to market. My fear is that in the quest towards decriminalisation, we haven’t actually learned anything from the way similar industries, such as the tobacco and alcohol industries, have historically operated. Many, for example, have made false claims about their products or have associated themselves with high profile sports as a way of softening their image and increasing sales. They have also been proven to be adept at influencing policy in their favour, minimising restrictions to their products or lobbying for reducing the tax levied on them.

But there are far more serious issues beyond corporate policy lobbying and minimising taxation. Recently the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency started flexing its muscles, issuing a warning to Hempworx, a CBD and hemp firm, over medical claims it made about its products, particularly assertions that they could help with a range of health issues including cancer.

They are not the only trader preying on people who are at a vulnerable point in their life. The risks go beyond giving false hope, which is bad enough, but the impact could see an individual reject conventional medicine in favour of a new but untested CBD product, making this literally a life and death decision informed by unethical claims.

CBD businesses rightly have to be careful about how products are marketed in relation to health. If they cross the regulatory line from essentially promoting a food product to a health one, then licences are required. This would mean the CBD product would have to go through the same lengthy procedure that a new medicine would be subject to before it is made available. This process is costly and can take five to eight years, enough time to gather information about efficacy and potential adverse effects.

But the health industry isn’t the only one guilty of giving false hope in relation to medicinal cannabis, the government has, perhaps unintentionally, done the same in terms of the way it has managed legal access to medicinal cannabis.

Access has been permitted since last year, but only a few (mainly private) prescriptions have been issued. Such moves have resulted in a two-tier system where those with means can access prescriptions and those without money are in the same position they were in before the legislation was introduced. This inequity is not helped by the conflict of interest that some government ministers appear to have in relation to cannabis products. Victoria Atkins the minister responsible for drugs policy, had to withdraw from a debate about legalising cannabis after it emerged her husband is the managing director of British Sugar, which has a licence to grow cannabis.

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Issues with drug policy also goes beyond ministers having a conflict of interests or business lobbying, however. What’s particularly worrying is the opaque nature of these relationships and, by extension, our inability to really ever know how much influence they have. The alcohol industry has demonstrated how it has manipulated research evidence by downplaying the risk of cancer that drinking causes, a link many people are still unaware of.

The other player involved in shaping policy and access to cannabis-based products is the pharmaceutical industry. Again, it’s not always clear what the extent of their involvement is. Some suggest the industry has tried to restrict access to cannabis-based products to maximise sales of their traditional medicines. Others claim that it is trying to monopolise the emerging cannabis market.

It may not be a surprise that such powerful groups are involved in the cannabis industry, but it might be to know that they tend to collaborate when there is a shared interest. We should expect the cannabis industry to follow what the alcohol and tobacco industry have been doing for years: sharing intelligence, cross industry share-holding, all with a common goal: maximising their market and profit.

We won’t know for years the extent of these working relationships, but we do know what they’re working towards in the United Kingdom: full cannabis legalisation. Access to medicinal cannabis and CBDs is viewed as the first step in this process. Now would be a good time to clear those hazy eyes.

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