On a trip to November’s MJBiz Conference, the world’s biggest cannabis convention that is held annually in Las Vegas, UK entrepreneur Johan Obel was surprised to be stopped at the airport – after all, cannabis has been legal in Nevada since 2017.
“It transpired that my Holland and Barrett CBD pills had a tiny bit of THC (the psychoactive ingredient of cannabis) in them,” he says. “They tested positive. I was sent straight back to the UK under federal rules.”
For Obel, who has set up a company in London called thedrug.store with his business partner Clemens Böninger, it’s part of the information and legislative fog that still afflicts the cannabis industry. “It’s growing so fast that it’s all a bit confused,” he says.
But thedrug.store could be part of the remedy. In January, Obel opens a pop-up shop in King’s Road, Chelsea for a couple of months. Why Chelsea and not say, more alternative Hackney? “Because it’s a high-end market with a proven interest in health and wellbeing products,” he says. There’ll be no sleazy Amsterdam “coffee shop” ambience: rather, a boutique space with premium-priced sprays, oils, capsules and creams from brands with names like CBDistillery, Medterra, Dr Kerklaan, Floré, Kat’s Naturals, Myaderm and others: a host of clean and efficacious-looking products packaged with that efficient pharma-meets-wellness look beloved of the Gwyneth Paltrow gang.
The new “Chelsea drug store” represents the growth in the UK’s CBD industry, one of the fastest growing sectors in the country – “Britpot”, if you will. The industry is so huge that it’s inviting all kinds of comparisons, and, depending on who’s talking CBD, is the new viagra, the new Bitcoin, the new dotcom boom, the new argan oil. Indeed, in a sobriquet that nails CBD’s role as the late 2018 hipster must-have, in a recent New York Times piece it was dubbed the “new avocado toast”.
There are three main cannabis categories: lifestyle products made with CBD (which, to avoid doubt, contains non-psychoactive cannabidiol); medical marijuana; and products with tetrahydrocannabinol or THC: the psychoactive stuff that makes you nod along to dub reggae for hours and find dog behaviour amusing. It is the former that currently has lift-off, and in the UK it is allowed contain up to 0.2 per cent THC, but you’d need an awful lot of CBD marshmallows to get stoned.
This key market is comprised of what Obel calls “two major verticals”: the medicinal category with products that help with anxiety and epilepsy, chronic pain and arthritis; and the busy health and wellbeing category. The recreational remains illegal and has yet to come but as Guy Coxall, the research officer of health company Unyte and chair of the Cannabis Trades Association UK, says: “There will surely be under-the-radar brands out there.”
Indeed, it would be odd if there weren’t. More than 40 countries have a degree of decriminalisation. There are models in 10 states in the US, and countries such as Uruguay and Canada. The UK has to eventually fall to the full gamut of the “green rush”.
As part of his role with the Cannabis Trades Association, Coxall has witnessed the extraordinary rise of British CBD products.
“Two years ago I was aware of about 20 CBD products,” he says. “Now there’s about 700 and the number is rising every day.”
Most are white label (unbranded and generic) made by cottage industries, but there are plenty of new brands moving into the limelight, including names such as Hempura, Provacan, CBD Life UK and Love CBD, and they come with all kinds of properties (bar, of course, the most famous one associated with cannabis: intoxication).
“Many innovative and custom-designed products are reaching the market daily,” says Coxall. “They’re made for all kinds of eventualities: for calming down, for energy, for focus and stamina, for pets, for winding down after the school run. CBD is the iconic supplement of our times and it’s flying off the shelves.”
There’s still a slightly risqué kick to CBD as well and, adds Coxall, “It’ll raise eyebrows at a tea party.” And it plays into the anxious mood of the times, offering solace to the frazzled precariat.
Among the various medical and wellbeing benefits that CBD is said to offer include the lessening of period pain, the alleviation of menopause and anxiety, skincare, disrupted sleep – some believe it offers better orgasms. In other words, it has something for everyone, and among the various and growing delivery methods include sprays, marshmallows, soft drinks and a CBD-specialist restaurant in Brighton called The Canna Kitchen.
A Cannabis Trades Association survey found that the number of UK CBD users rose from 125,000 in 2016 to 250,000 last year. “And remember, it’s still a young industry,” says Coxall. Although the UK market has been estimated to reach a relatively modest $7m (£5.5m) this year, the global CBD industry is projected to hit $2.2bn by 2020, so there’s a lot of life in CBD yet.
Such is the level of activity that there’s a danger of a boom in the cannabis trade and as happened in the US a few years ago, the dotcom fallout of the late 1990s is often cited. “It’s volatile, which undermines the trust in the market,” says Obel.
But it will surely flatten out and as Harriet Kilikita of trendspotter WGSN says, it is an extremely versatile product. “With its rich history it can be a superfood, a medicine or a recreational drug.” Hemp can also be used as a building material and a cooking oil. Few are the products that claim such a huge portfolio of benefits.
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Britpot’s upward trend seems unassailable, and has been helped by a couple of recent real-life events. In November, following the high-profile cases of Alfie Dingle and Billy Caldwell – both epileptics, both being treated with medicinal cannabis – home secretary Sajid Javid legalised medicinal cannabis products for “exceptional clinical need”. This helped the PR for medical cannabis and by extension, CBD. As Coxall puts it, “the introduction of cannabis to the National Health Service has brought a sense of safety and normality.”
Cannabis was until then a Schedule 1 drug: that is, of no therapeutic value and not to be lawfully possessed or prescribed unless a Home Office licence is issued. But now that specialist doctors can prescribe cannabis-based products for medicinal use that fall within Schedule 2 of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations without a licence, those under-the-radar recreational brands will probably start to emerge, pending some kind of future legalisation.
Already, as well as the innumerable CBD products in the UK, there is significant medical cannabis production, with the biggest brands being Sativex and Epilex. The former is produced by GW Pharmaceuticals, which has the only UK licence to grow cannabis for medical use (it’s based in Wissington, Norfolk where it grows cannabis under cover in huge quantities). These seismic shifts are being closely observed by Marishka Dunlop and Katie Bell, two entrepreneurs with marketing backgrounds who are about to launch The Telegrass: a news service for the British cannabis industry. “We’re aiming to elevate the conversation and show the market potential for investors in the cannabis space,” says Dunlop. “Cannabis in its various forms is still immature here, but we believe it will be really big if we can get past the constraints.”
To illustrate that point, the Telegrass was turned down by MetroBank for a start-up loan (Canada has suffered similar problems, says Obel, with only one go-to bank for the cannabis industries).
“The industry still has perception problems,” says Dunlop, adding that it still attracts a slightly nerdy crowd: at a recent Cannabis Trade Association Show in Birmingham, she found few women in the business. The Telegrass team are going to help change that state of affairs.
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Is legalisation inevitable in the UK? It’s a big question, but it is commonly understood that there’s a progression from medical cannabis to CBD to recreational: after all, Canada legalised medical in 2002, then went through CBD and gained full legality last year: a 16-year journey. But with the huge groundswell of confidence coming from the US and Canada, the possibility of a recreational market in the UK is the big question. No one wants to bet when it will come but Coxall confidently ventures “five to 10 years”.
For Coxall, one of the most interesting things about CBD is how far along the marketing path it is from the doomy recreational black market “which has virtually no innovation or creativity”. This may be, he says, because the black market is “80 per cent skunk-type product”, which is like marketing cheap spirits, and consequently has an off putting subterranean branding that is “really sinister with names like Amnesia, AK47 and ‘green crack’”.
When and if it happens here, recreational cannabis will be very different to all this renegade stuff. “It’ll be fully regulated, similar to the alcohol industry, and there’ll be a wide range of choice with proper labelling,” Coxall predicts.
As in the US and Canada, much of the branding will be for wellness, relaxation, sophistication, and big US names such as Incredibles, Kiva Cheeba Chews, Whoopi and Maya will also find their way to the British market.
As Lucie Greene of ad agency JWT Innovation, which published a report on the cannabis market called High Times earlier this year, says, “We’ve seen rising normalisation of cannabis, in part it’s been seen on TV shows, in Netflix shows like Kathy Bates’ Disjointed, and Broad City and even in store concepts and products.”
The cannabis movement, as she calls it, “is not about smoking joints but a diverse industry that spans weed and other products and derivatives.” There’s a lot of people waiting to pounce.
The UK cannabis industry is also opening up space for corporations hoping to diversify. UK drinks conglomerate Diageo has addressed investment in creating new cannabis-infused drinks, according to Bloomberg, while the tobacco firm Imperial Brands has invested in the biotech company Oxford Cannabinoid Technologies (OCT) and created a subsidiary called Imperial Brands Ventures.
Meanwhile, the UK law firm Mackrell International has positioned itself as a leading advisor on national drug law, and already offers a service advising businesses on the whys and wherefores of brining medicinal and recreational cannabis to market.
Then comes the government and legislative response. Will the UK learn from the emergent industries in the US and Canada, where rows about packaging and legislation have given the industry teething pangs, particularly as their cannabis packaging and health warnings are less draconian than that of cigarettes? There’s still a lot to be worked out in the legal markets.
Recalling all the old arguments about cannabis being a “gateway drug” to harder narcotics, it now seems that CBD is the gateway drug to recreational cannabis.
“Well, it is definitely changing public perceptions of cannabis,” says Coxall. “It’s a bit of a test ground.”
While a key counter-argument to legalisation lies in the serious mental health problems that cannabis smokers have presented, Coxall thinks that this could to a degree be ironed out by mixing CBD and THC, making less strong connoisseur hybrids. “This generation have no experience of Moroccan or Lebanese hash,” he says. “These kinds of cannabis have levels of CBD alongside THC and it is virtually impossible to get a psychotic effect from them.”
So the legalised market will change from the downmarket stoner crowd into what Coxall calls “a range of health products with varying effects that respond to demographic and lifestyle changes. Remember, Millennials and Gen Y’ers are increasingly seeking alternatives to alcohol.” He also says that cannabis will benefit from being “calorie-free”.
It’s a young industry and the seedy old smoke of the past is clearing.