Lab tests from the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis (CMC) in June found that 62 per cent of the UK high street products studied didn’t contain the CBD content promised on the label. One product (retailing for £90) had no measurable amount of the non-toxic cannabis compound at all. And where lacking in advertised cannabidiol, some products were packing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the intoxicating – and illegal – chemical that causes a cannabis high. According to the report nearly half of tested products had low levels of THC or cannabinol (CBN), another psychoactive substance.
And although these products are unlikely to get anyone dazed and confused, they indicate that the CBD industry’s standards are hardly high. So how are the CBD companies slipping illegal cannabis compounds onto high street shelves? And why aren’t the regulators spotting them?
“It’s not like people are wilfully doing this,” says Shomi Malik, development director at the CMC. “People don’t know what they don’t know.” This ignorance can be partly blamed on the CBD labs’ unfamiliarity with cannabis chemistry. Packed with over 400 unique compounds – which have been notoriously difficult to study due to the drug’s prohibition – cannabis isn’t your average cosmetic. And as its medicinal use only became legal in the UK last November, the country is still lacking qualified cannabis chemists. “It is a lack of domain experts in the field,” Malik says. And in the CBD labs, this lack of experts is causing some clumsy errors.
The problem, Malik says, is that many testing machines are way off the mark. “When you calibrate a [testing] machine [..] I need to tell it what peak is THC, what peak is CBD, and all the other cannabinoids. To be able to do that, you need to buy standards,” he says. “So you buy highly refined pharmaceutical-grade THC. And then once you’ve calibrated it, your machine knows what THC looks like. Now, if you buy a standard from a company that isn’t accredited, then you’re starting off on the wrong foot in a massive way.”
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