Cannabis & CBD lessons from North America

by Andrew Ward August 10, 2019

Cannabis & CBD Lessons from North America

The UK has seen an explosion in the use of CBD oil and CBD-infused products. Over 6 million people have tried CBD (CMC, 2019). Chemists, health food shops and cafes stock everything from CBD drops to CBD-infused croissants.

CBD law judge gavel
Despite the growing market, it has not all been plain sailing. The new industry has very few regulations and those that do exist are based on old information. This has resulted in genuine CBD brands being forced to compete for customers with snake oil salesmen selling inferior products.

As the UK approaches the demanding task of regulating the industry, customers, retailers and official bodies look on with concern. Members of the European Parliament and groups like the Centre for Medical Cannabis have made public requests for a coordinated and evidence-based approach.

However, there are several other countries who have already faced similar challenges and implemented CBD and Cannabis regulation. In recent years North America has made significant steps in decriminalising some forms of cannabis and related products.

By exploring the situations in the USA, Canada and Mexico we will be looking at three unique countries with many differences from our own. However, there are also many similarities, considering them may help us avoid some of the pitfalls ahead.

Cannabis and CBD regulation in the USA

American USA flag cannabis
According to federal law, cannabis is illegal throughout the US. The federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA) classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug. However, 33 states and 4 territories have moved local policy towards some form of legalisation.

In 2013, Deputy Attorney General, James M. Cole issued a memo stating that there would be no justice department enforcement of the 1970 act in states where cannabis had been declared legal in some form. In a worrying turn of events in 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the memo. However, to date, there has been no enforcement of the CSA.

CBD and hemp products, while legal in some forms, are strictly regulated according to the intended use of the product and its contents. The 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from the jurisdiction of the CSA and defined it ‘as cannabis plants and derivatives that contain no more than 0.3 percent THC on a dry weight basis.’ (FDA, 2019)

Inconsistent laws and policies

White eagle USA CBD law
In terms of regulation nowhere is more complicated than in the US. With states setting laws that seem to directly contradict those at the federal level, it’s not surprising that many people don’t really know which side of the law CBD falls on.

Hemp-derived CBD is allowed as long as it contains less than 0.3% THC. Meanwhile, THC is prohibited by the federal government. Individual states implement their own individual laws and, in some cases, use examples from other states.

Even though over half the states have some form of cannabis decriminalisation, state laws can still limit access to useful CBD products. In states like Texas, only children with intractable epilepsy can legally obtain CBD under its medical cannabis program.

This left some families to become “cannabis refugees”. People were forced to move to states like Colorado so they could legally purchase CBD oil.

Only legal in some forms

USA American couple bicycle
Cannabis-derived products remain in a grey area in several states that has a significant effect on consumers. Much like Canada, the inclusion of CBD or THC in edibles remains a sticking point that lawmakers continue to debate.

While this may cater more to a recreational mindset, people prefer and/or need to consume cannabis products differently than others. Consider a patient unable to smoke their cannabis. Or maybe they are unable to ingest CBD oil.

These people need options that will allow them to consume their needed dosage easily. The UK can seek out and listen to these voices and others to best understand every nuance of medical cannabis care.

Lessons from the USA

While the UK suffers from a lack of regulation, the USA has so much that nobody is quite sure what they should be doing. However, policies and events that followed the 2018 farm bill form a useful case study of how hemp products can be defined and controlled. Clear definitions in policies that are easily understood and applied are key to effective regulation:

1. Consistent regulation

Create regulation that is consistent and easy to apply to each product and situation. While the UK doesn’t have the confusion between federal and state laws it still suffers from over-complication. Laws are often open to interpretation and different authorities and police forces enforce them differently.

The most effective policies reference relevant research and give a clear rationale that can be understood by all. Best practice could also include suggestions of how they can be enforced and by whom.

2. Consider current use

Accept that cannabis products are used in edibles and other applications for genuine reasons. The use of a food supplement in a cookie in a coffee shop may seem frivolous to some. However, to others, it is an important way of supporting their general wellbeing.

Cannabis products don’t tend to fit into the neat boxes that we have created for ourselves. This could be recognised within regulation, so customers are not penalised for their choice of CBD consumption method.

3. Consider consumer needs

Create regulations that reflect current knowledge and the current needs of consumers. With a huge number of people in the UK already using CBD, the industry has already moved on in just a few years. If regulatory bodies fail to recognise this, they risk undermining that progress and forcing it to start from square one.

Cannabis and CBD regulation in Canada

Canada Flag cannabis
Canada became the second nation in the world to legalise the possession, use and sale of cannabis in October 2018. The nation’s new laws applied to CBD as well as whole-plant cannabis products. Despite this, rules around product availability and the price have made many consumers turn to the black market.

Product availability and cost

Canada nature lakeWhen Canada approved adult-use cannabis laws, it prohibited certain popular types of products like edibles, concentrates and topicals for the first year. Because these items couldn’t be bought legally, customers continued to buy them illegally rather than embracing the new supply. Now, the government hopes to win customers back, but it is going to be difficult.

With taxes and limits applied to each sale, many people are likely to remain purchasing from the black market. They won’t consider the legal option if it doesn’t match the price and quality that they are used to.

Misunderstandings and blurred lines around CBD

Child Canada Flag
By the Spring of 2019, Canadian CBD oil sales had grown beyond expectations. The Globe and Mail called CBD a "trendy cannabis compound" and claimed that it blurred the nation's cannabis laws.

Such blurring could be found in how CBD was extracted. The hemp oil sold in many stores was legally sourced from pressed plant seeds which contained adequate amounts of CBD. Meanwhile, products sourced from other parts of the hemp plant were not permitted under national regulations.

The uncertainty around regulations affected everyone. Consumers were confused as to what was legal and safe to buy. Businesses were just as confused as what could be legally produced.

Blurred legal lines can lead to unsafe products landing in the public’s hands. Products may contain more than just CBD or may not contain it at all. While it likely won’t harm consumers, mislabelled products will destroy any trust in the developing market.

Lessons from Canada

Ultimately while Canada has had many successes with legalisation, they are still having to repair the damage caused by early mistakes. On our current path, the UK could also suffer from not creating clear regulations. However, it isn’t too late.

1. Seek clarity and simplicity wherever possible

Create clear regulations as early as possible to prevent later confusion. When outlining CBD regulation, it is important to consider which products will be allowed for which category of sale. If products can be categorised with clarity and simplicity, this will prevent unscrupulous vendors from trying to squeeze their products through legal loopholes to make easy money.

2. Consider the consequences of prohibition

Banning popular items could result in customers looking for them elsewhere.

Rules on which items can be legally purchased and which can’t need to consider the impact of banning those items. Prohibiting popular or beneficial options could lead patients to the illicit market to treat themselves.

Because the UK market is already well-established regulators need to act quickly and concisely to create guidelines that reflect the current market. If they fail to recognise the lessons learnt the situation will be just as uncertain as it is now.

3. Consider demand

Don’t underestimate the demand for CBD or medical cannabis. Global demand for cannabis, both CBD and medical marijuana, is on the rise. The U.K. is no exception. After having people in need largely frozen out of both, the public demand is likely to be immense once its availability opens.

The government needs to be prepared, as do suppliers and retailers. The people will want to see if CBD or medical cannabis works for them. Interest won’t be a trickle of interested consumers either. It will be a deluge of people wanting to address their conditions adequately.

Cannabis and CBD regulation in Mexico

Mexico Flag cannabisMexico's cannabis prospects began to warm when Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected as the nation's next president in 2018. Known commonly as AMLO, the now inaugurated president had promised to change the country's cannabis laws.

This was mostly an attempt to thwart the cartel violence that has had the country in its grip for so long.

Policy changes delaying access

Mexico Pyramid
By 2018 December, some reports had begun to suggest that the country could become the main supplier of CBD in the world. However, that early progress was altered in March 2019 when the current administration revoked the guidelines used to issue such licenses.

The government cited several reasons ranging from how the cannabis was used to not meeting customs tariff regulations. Despite the news, much of the details were resolved by the launch of the country's cannabis market when it finally opened.

Legalisation as a tool to tackle drug-related violence

Mexico Dance
Mexico is taking steps to legalise cannabis products to keep the nation safe. However, it is not so much about therapeutic relief, but rather a relief from criminal activity.

The aim is to address the links between cannabis and illegal activity. By creating a regulated legal market, the Mexican government hope to reduce gang violence and other crimes that have become part of the culture.

Lessons from Mexico

Alleged links between cannabis use and violence in the UK are often cited as a reason not to allow regulated use of cannabis-related products. The current Mexican government are attempting to use regulation as a tool to tackle drug-related violence.

This and many other reasons make Mexico an excellent case study to strengthen and guide UK regulation:

1. Address links between cannabis and criminal activity

The UK does not have cartel levels of violence to contend with. However, it can learn how to address any criminal links to cannabis.

The increase in the use of CBD has slowly but surely eroded some of the negative perceptions that surround cannabis. By bringing CBD and cannabis into the light, out of the alleyways and onto the high streets the grip of black-market suppliers may slowly loosen.

2. Anticipate potential policy shifts

No nation has made progress without such shifts to some degree. While they can’t forecast where policy could go from May to Johnson to whoever would be next, the country’s leaders can understand the incoming leadership. They likely already know how the new PM feels already, whether it has been publicly discussed or not.

As such, anticipating any significant changes can keep the program on track. Mexico revoked the guidelines but was still able to keep the market largely on track.


Each of the three major nations comprising North America is at the forefront of CBD and medical cannabis legalisation. If British regulators want to support an already thriving industry, they will do best by learning from the lessons of these nations.

Edibles and other consumption methods must be thoroughly considered. Grey areas like those in Canada and the United States can lead to uncertain customers, unsure of which products are safe and legal to consume.

The North American market also shows what happens when the rules are open to interpretation by those who enforce them. Without a secure industry, many of the best suppliers and retailers could be forced out due to constant law and policy changes.

Lawmakers must also continue to monitor and address the needs of the citizens and their market. In doing so, the cannabis culture can continue to grow and destigmatise the plant while potentially serving as a treatment for scores of people.

Clear product categories with individual guidelines could reflect up-to-date usage habits. Regulation could be a tool that supports the consumer and gives them access to top quality products, instead of serving to uphold the outdated stereotypes of the cannabis plant.

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Express. (May 31, 2019). Abbie Llewelyn: Mother’s AGONY as epileptic boy Billy Caldwell faces ANOTHER medical cannabis setback
CTV News London. A timeline of some significant events in the history of medical marijuana in Canada.
The Globe and Mail. (January 18, 2019). Mike Hager, Christina Pellegrini: CBD: the trendy cannabis compound that’s blurring the law for Canadians
Marijuana Business Daily. (June 19, 2019). Matt Lamers: Canada proposes ‘Cannabis Health Products’ category for humans and pets, paving way for a large new market.
Weedmaps. (June 17, 2019). Kieran Delamont: Canada Sets Rules and Sales Date for Edibles, Concentrates, and Vapes
Marijuana Business Daily. (March 28, 2019). Alfredo Pascual: Mexico revokes cannabis guidelines, throwing licenses into doubt
National Public Radio. (November 14, 2018) Carrie Kahn: Mexico Looks To Be Next To Legalize Marijuana
Amandala. (July 3, 2019). Belize Will Follow AMLO When Mexico Legalizes It
FDA. (2019). FDA Regulation of Cannabis and Cannabis-Derived Products: Questions and Answers. Retrieved from

Andrew Ward
Andrew Ward


NY-based writer cannabis and CBD writer for The Marijuana Times, Potguide, Benzinga, PROHBTD, Cannabis Culture, Medical Jane and for the Ageless. Author of the book Cannabis Jobs, How to Make a Living and Have a Career in the World of Legalized Marijuana (Simon & Schuster, 2019). @TheCannaWriter

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