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On a stone-paved, tourist-packed lane in Bath, England, Harry Johnstone does his best to field a series of questions about the effects and use of cannabidiol (CBD) in the popular Holland & Barrett shop where he works.

In the shop window, a leafy green display reads “Our CBD range has grown,” while inside a familiar image of a hemp leaf tops a sizable display of lotions, supplements, and creams that include cannabidiol, a non-intoxicating cannabinoid compound in cannabis.

CBD's popularity at Holland & Barrett, a chain of health food shops throughout the United Kingdom that offers drops, creams, supplements, and other CBD-infused product,s is just one example of CBD's growing influence in the U.K. and beyond. Experts are preparing for rapid international growth to continue. A recent study released by the Brightfield Group, a Chicago-based marketing firm, estimated the European CBD market was valued at $318 million, in 2018 and estimated an astonishing 400% growth through 2023.

The company said the U.K. is leading that trend in Europe, with a market near 61.366 million pounds, or $80 million in U.S. dollars in 2018. On streets and in shopping areas around England, CBD ads appear in display windows and on the shelves, along with a variety of hemp products.

Cannabidiol can be extracted from marijuana or hemp, which is bred to be low in intoxicating THC. Once an obscure portion of the complicated chemistry of the cannabis plant, CBD is at the center of an explosion of consumer interest.

Just don't ask store staff what CBD does.

Harry Johnstone does his best to field a series of questions about the effects and use of CBD in the popular Holland & Barrett shop where he works. (Photo by Bill Barlow)

Benefits Aren't Touted

Johnstone says there is little he can say about the products containing CBD or their use.

“It's a very new product,” he said. “A lot of people do seem to be buying it. My mom uses it for foot pain.”

Prices range from £4.99 to 29.99 pounds for the creams, oils, and supplements, about US$7 to $39.  

Johnstone said he can't say much about CBD, only describe how other customers have used it. The packaging does not make any claims about the effectiveness or medicinal properties, and marketing materials are restricted to a vague statement that the product may improve health and wellbeing.

“I think that's perfectly correct, to be honest,” said Peter Reynolds, president of CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform, a group seeking to end cannabis prohibition in the U.K. Just as in the United States, where the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to evaluate many of the properties of CBD, neither have British medical authorities answered the same questions.

Studies have indicated there may be extensive medicinal benefits from CBD as an anti-inflammatory, a pain reliever, and potential seizure suppressant. There are promising signs it can reduce anxiety. But Reynolds said it is important that governments properly regulate medicines to ensure consumers know the effects and benefits of anything taken as a remedy.

“That's something that the CBD industry has had some trouble getting grips with. There are a lot of cowboy operations, a lot of fraudsters making the most outlandish medical claims. If we want the industry to be around in the long term we have to be responsible,” Reynolds said.

He sees enormous potential in that long term, as more people become aware of the benefits of cannabinoids.

Stores in the United Kingdom may now offer products containing hemp-derived CBD, under rules similar to many states in the USA. Products include liquids for use in vaping. (Photo by Bill Barlow)

Many point to a high profile case during the summer of 2018 as a turning point both for British law and public attitudes toward CBD and other cannabis-derived medicines. Billy Caldwell, a 13-year-old from County Tyrone in Northern Ireland, has a  severe form of epilepsy. News reports in the U.K. say he was the first child to be prescribed medicinal cannabis oil. The treatment was said to be successful and he went 300 days without a seizure until the Home Office ended the prescription.

His mother, Charlotte, flew with him to Canada for a supply of cannabis oil, only to have it seized at customs as she returned home.

His condition worsened, and he was taken to the hospital soon after his medicine was seized. Eventually, the Home Office relented, granting Billy special permission for its use.

“That created a huge media splash,” said Hannah Hetzer, the senior international policy manager for the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). She said the case drew sympathy from across the British political spectrum, including from some who had previously been inimical to loosening cannabis restrictions.

“It pushed the government to start to move on cannabis reform. It definitely opened the debate,” Hetzer said.

According to Reynolds, the market was non-existent in 2012 and rapidly grew to a £50 million-a-year industry, about US$66.2 million.

An important factor in that future, as Reynolds sees it, will be educating medical professionals about the uses of CBD.

“I'm delighted by how far these reforms have gone. The law has been taken out of the equation,” Reynolds said. The problem now is the medical profession tends to be ignorant of or even hostile to any consideration of benefits from cannabis-related products.

Growing Vape Market

At the House of Vapes on the High Street in the Shoreditch section of East London, staff member Kris O'Brien is happy to talk about the dizzying variety of products containing CBD, including hemp flower with little to no THC. The cost for the hemp flowers is 40 pounds for four grams, about US$53.

On a quiet morning, O'Brien fiddled with his vape pen while discussing how CBD products, a portion of the vape market he said was close to invisible a couple of years ago, now make up a major portion of the shop's offerings.

Most vape shops in the U.K. offer CBD in several forms, such as e-liquids and drops from Marie Jeanne and Aztec CDB, crystals from Harmony, oils, and flowers including several strains like “Sour Diesel” and “Hawaiian Haze,” with 3.9% CBD and less than 0.17% THC. There are also offers CBD-infused edibles including hard candy with 5 mg CBD concentration. There are House of Vapes shops scattered throughout London, but the Shoreditch outpost also offers coffees and a comfortable lounge area. O'Brien, who said he finds the CBD vapes calming, suggests that his customers start with a low concentration as they figure out what dose is right for them.

The House of Vapes shop in the Shoreditch section of London offers a number of CBD products in a range of flavors. (Photo by Bill Barlow)

As the shop began offering CBD products, he said, some customers were skeptical. The products contain a negligible amount of THC if any at all, he said.

Full Legalization May be Years Away

Reynolds, of CLEAR, said his organization also is pushing for reform of the U.K.'s marijuana laws, but for now, the ongoing and intractable fight over Brexit seems to have taken all of the air out of the room.

“That just overwhelms everything,” Reynolds said. “British politics is absolutely paralyzed by that.”

Yet he sees a growing movement toward legalization in the U.K. and elsewhere in the world, as other nations look to Canada's experiences. According to Reynolds, about 75% of the British public supports making cannabis available for medical use, with about half in favor of some degree of reform of drug laws related to cannabis. He said he dislikes the term “recreational use.”

Little is likely to happen as long as Theresa May remains Prime Minister. May has seen a  series of setbacks over Brexit, with her deal for withdrawal from the European Union rejected by Parliament.

“The prime minister is a staunch, old fashioned prohibitionist. Once she's gone, and it can't be long now, I think we'll see real movement toward drug policy reform,” said Reynolds.

In the weeks since Reynolds made that prediction,  May took a step closer to the exit of No. 10 Downing St. On March 27, 2019, she announced that if her Brexit deal receives approval, she will step down as prime minister. But after Parliament shot down the withdrawal agreement for the third time ahead of the March 29, 2019, date to leave the European Union, that deadline has been extended six months, to Oct. 31.

Featured Image: CBD is appearing in many forms, and all types of stores, across the U.K. (Photo by Bill Barlow)