When it comes to ‘novel food’ and CBD in the UK, more questions than answers

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INTERVIEW: Cefyn Jones of the UK’s Hemp Hound Agency has been closely tracking developments for CBD as a new or “novel” food in the UK since 2017. Jones covers a diversity of sectors from farming to CBD products, and works with associations and focus groups on all issues related to cannabis.

HT: The Food Safety Agency (FSA) had said it expected the first CBD products to be fully authorized during the latter half of 2023, but that did not happen. What is the problem from your perspective?

Cefyn Jones: I have to be fair to the FSA on this question. They have stated consistently for about a year in their board meetings that they were looking to authorize products subject to the Home Office providing guidance on THC levels. Then of course, we’re talking about 12,115 products in total that span three categories, that being isolates and synthetic CBD, distillates, and raw extracts.

I appreciate that the FSA doesn’t have a large body of staff to process these applications quickly, but if we do see products authorized within the next couple of months, you would assume that it is off the back of the Home Office’s acknowledgment of ACMD (Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs) suggestions that they themselves received in December 2021, and that the FSA are sticking to a timeframe subject to when they received that update from the Home Office.

HT: Is it the FSA’s fault that the Home Office has taken so long? 

Possibly, but who knows? They could have insisted that the Home Office release their acknowledgment sooner due to the impact on companies waiting for the novel foods process to proceed because they do have ultimate power over foods after all. Whether the Home Office would have obliged though, is another question. Why has the novel food process taken so long? I believe that we could have had authorized products by now, even though the novel foods process itself can take over five years, and novel foods from the EU announcement in 2019 was five years and a couple of days ago.

The UK could say that they were following the EU with novel foods, but that simply wouldn’t be true, as it was the FSA who submitted an Article 4 submission to the EU in October 2018, that led to novel foods being announced by the latter in January 2019. Could they have been quicker in running the process? Yes! Is it annoying for the companies who are in that process that they seem to have dragged their feet? Yes! But equally, do we have some sort of movement now? Yes, and I feel the industry should be thankful for that at least. 

HT: You’ve raised some questions about a report by Deloitte released last year that reviewed Novel Food Regulations (NFR) and explored options for the UK to separate itself from EU guidance. What are your concerns?

CJ: The FSA stated that the review of NFR had nothing to do with CBD products, but for some reason they chose not to announce Deloitte as winning that contract until 14 days before it was due for completion, and even then, they only did so on LinkedIn. What’s more, they only did that after I declared I knew who won that contract, on LinkedIn, and that I was about to release an article showing Deloitte’s connections to GW Pharmaceuticals (Now owned by Jazz Pharmaceuticals).

It’s interesting that the FSA has not acknowledged that Deloitte and GW have had a 20+ year working relationship, and that’s important because I believe Deloitte have been the private sector managers of an agreement between GW Pharmaceuticals and the British Government, and would have had a level of interaction with the FSA before the awarding of that contract. My main concern is that everyone, and every application should be judged by the same set of NFR. There shouldn’t be any difference in the rules followed by the early applicants or the chasing pack.

HT: You’ve made the claim that regulatory authorities such as the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Home Office allowed GW Pharma (Jazz) to create policy not just on CBD products but cannabis as a whole. Can you give just a bit of elaboration on that?

CJ: OK, that’s partly true. In 1998 Dr Geoffrey Guy, co-founder of GW, submitted a 22-point plan to regulate and control cannabis in the UK. That was accepted, and led to GW getting a license to grow from the Home Office, as well as a spot in Porton Down, which is synonymous with government-funded R&D. There’s a document freely available online called ‘The Medicinalization of Cannabis’, where Dr. Guy himself outlines his interactions with the Home Office, and where he identifies that 22-point plan as the catalyst to the creation of GW as we know it.

From there, parliamentary conversations about cannabis get interesting. They tended to rebuff any question of legalization, whilst singing the praises of GW, and the publicly funded R&D they were engaged in. Recently I’ve been engaged in a Freedom of Information (FOI) campaign, with the intention to uncover Dr. Guy’s 22-point plan, as I believe its acceptance indicated the start of a Public-Private Partnership between GW and the British Government. 

With his 22-point plan in 1998, Dr. Guy effectively wrote policy, and he was one-half of GW. But we’re talking medical R&D here, which is why there’s a question mark over the Home Office controlling CBD policy, which at the time I’m sure was termed something else, possibly along the lines of ‘medical cannabis policy’ before the Government realized that they had muddied cannabis as a word to the point that the money was in cannabinoids.

HT: How would you characterize the interaction between trade groups – ACI, CTA, EIHA – and the FSA regarding the novel foods approval process? 

CJ: Shocking . . . . I have to ask a question here: are the trade associations worth their weight in salt? I’ve not seen any of them raising the serious issues that surround novel foods for CBD products, or even show that they’re the voices of the industry that they claim to be. But then, the FSA hasn’t exactly made life easy for them, which I can confirm due to my past employment with the Cannabis Trades Association (CTA). I saw how the FSA all but blanked trade associations from the point that novel foods was re-announced in January 2019, and I saw how the Association for the Cannabinoid Industry (ACI) came in, and seemingly became their mouthpiece from November 2019.

Fast forward to today, and the ACI’s relationship with the FSA seems to have cooled, but the trade associations have diminished because in all that time, they’ve never really challenged the industry concerns that have arisen over that period. That being said, I know of some times when elements of trade associations have wanted to challenge a certain point of novel foods, but the boards of those associations have backed out through fear of rocking the boat. That to me is a very big issue. The boards of these associations are mostly populated by business owners who don’t want to be targeted if their name appears in a document questioning how novel foods is being run.

If you’re a board member of a trade association who is too scared to ask questions in case your business concerns are targeted, you’re not representing the industry… only yourself. Those fear needs to be addressed because it’s not just board members of trade associations that have them.

HT: What’s your opinion of how the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) that’s advocating for hemp is functioning?

CJ: I’ve got to admit that since there was the realization of there being some level of policy in play with cannabis and cannabinoid-based products, I’ve questioned the effectiveness of politicians and APPG’s to push for change. That’s not really a reflection on those who are going down that road, it’s more a case of being unable to fight that which you don’t understand. I have the same issues with the direction I’ve at taken The Hemp Hound Agency. I know there’s an agreement between GW and the British Government; it smells like a PPP (public-private partnership), but I don’t know what the terms are.

So I question the effectiveness of the APPG just because they don’t know the rules of what they’re fighting. My only hope is that they’re keeping an eye on The Hemp Hound Agency because over the last few months, I’ve been highlighting that there is an agenda, backed in policy, that needs to be seen not just by them but everyone who inhabits any industry related to legal cannabis-based products. I’ve provided enough information for people to start asking the right questions, in the place that matters, which really could lead to change, as well as to regulatory authorities running industries in a fair and balanced manner.

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