Since the end of the 20th century, hemp has been making a remarkable comeback and it now appears to be one of the most thriving and competitive agricultural and industrial markets worldwide.
The cultivation of industrial hemp (from the Cannabis sativa L. species) is authorised under the EU Common Catalogue of Varieties of Agricultural Plant species (Reg. 1308/2013). Hemp is characterized by having high levels of cannabidiol (CBD) and low levels of Tetrahidrocannabinol (THC)1; this means that this variety is not intoxicating. Despite the fact that the EU officially recognizes hemp as an agricultural crop entitled to direct payments under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), there are still some legal misinterpretations that hinder the full development of the hemp market in Europe.
There is a knowledge gap that affects in particular the upper part of the hemp plant. Leaves and flowers – which contain levels of THC and CBD, among other cannabinoids – are the main topics of discussion at Member States and EU level. The legal status concerning these parts of the plant has significantly changed in the last decades –from being considered traditional food, to Novel Food under the EU Regulation 2015/2283, to narcotic and back to Novel Food. At the moment, if operators plan to sell CBD products in Europe, they have to face the long and costly process of submitting a Novel Food application to EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) and FSA (Food Standards Agency) – for the UK – and wait for the validation.
In the last years, the cannabinoids market has grown exponentially, one of the main reasons being that CBD products meet consumers’ demands in terms of wellness and health maintenance objectives. While products containing naturally-derived CBD reached European households – in an uncontrolled manner I would say, due to a legal uncertainty and lack of regulation for these products – another market emerged for synthetic CBD products.
From the chemical point of view, natural and synthetic CBD are identical. Nevertheless, there is a key difference that tips the balance in favor of synthetic CBD: it does not contain THC – i.e., it is not subject to regulations on controlled substances. This is of course a considerable advantage when it comes to marketing these products.
On the contrary, food and food supplements naturally-derived from hemp contain traces of it as, even after the best and more accurate cleaning processing, small residues of THC remain. In practical terms this means that, in the EU, selling natural extracts is much more difficult than selling synthetic products. Today, there seems to be a preference for Member States to promote synthetic CBD over natural full spectrum extracts, as it certainly entails less legal burden.
I personally believe that we should promote natural products that contribute to preserving the environment and are profitable for our farmers. Moreover, we should clearly inform consumers about how each product is produced and let them decide what is their preferred choice. Moreover, the origin of the CBD (i.e., whether it is natural or synthetic) should be mandatorily displayed on the label in order to guarantee consumer’s access to information. Of course, I believe there is space in the EU market for both natural and synthetic CBD, but a level playing field needs to be established so that natural extracts are fairly regulated and can compete under equal conditions.