Most countries recognize Cannabis sativa containing delta-9-tetrahydrocannabiol (THC), and products containing higher levels of natural or synthetically derived THC, as drugs. Confusion, however, surrounds varieties of Cannabis sativa known as hemp and products containing hemp and its non-psychoactive derivative, cannabidiol (CBD).


The legal status of cannabis around the world is confusing. In some areas it might be sold as an edible product, a supplement, as a product for smoking, and/or as a drug. To make it more confusing, this lawfulness might only apply to certain areas under specific conditions.

What is cannabis?

To begin with, though commonly considered to be the same – cannabis, hemp and marijuana are different. They do all belong to the same plant family – cannabis – with two primary classifications, Indica and Sativa.

Hemp: a variety of Cannabis sativa L
Marijuana: can be considered a member of either the Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica families

With low THC, hemp usually has high CBD which offsets any THC, while marijuana (with high THC) is more likely to be consumed by smoking or in foods (edible).

CBD, the most popular extract fraction, can be obtained from hemp and marijuana. This is the active ingredient in cannabis derived products.

Legal Status of Hemp and Hemp-derived Products

Hemp is a variety of Cannabis sativa L. that is low in THC but high in CBD. Its legality, and that of products derived from it, varies throughout the world. Some ingredients taken from hemp are recognized as safe, others could possibly be considered novel foods or supplements, and some products are considered drugs.

Globally, the legal approach to hemp is varied. The European Union classes hemp and its derivatives (seeds, oils, flour and defatted seeds) as food and food ingredients. They are not considered novel foods because there is a history of consumption.1 This rule does not, however, apply in every Member State.

In the US, the signing of the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 – commonly known as the Farm Bill of 2018 – on December 20, 2018, allowed the legal selling of hemp and its derivatives if they contain less than 0.3% of THC on a dry weight basis.2 The United States Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) recognizes hemp seed, hemp seed protein powder and hemp seed oil as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS).3 This change did not, however, override state laws and so, if a state prohibits the sale of hemp products, that law stays in-force.4

In other countries: Australia and New Zealand have allowed the sale of hemp with no or very low levels of THC under food standards since November 12, 20175; Canada has allowed hemp products with less than 0.3% THC hemp since 19986. Since January 1, 2010, the Yunnan Department of Agricultural in China has allowed the cultivation of hemp with less than 0.3% THC and now China provides about 50% of the world’s industrial hemp products. In Japan the cultivation is illegal but the sale of products is legal.

Legal Status of Cannabidiol (CBD)

The legal status of CBD can be equally difficult to understand. Depending on the country and which authority is being asked, CBD can be classified as a food, supplement and/or drug.

The European Foods Safety Agency (EFSA) is considering a novel food application for CBD in food supplements with a daily intake of up to 130 milligrams (mg).7 This determination means items currently cannot legally be marketed as supplements and should be removed from sale until the novel food determination is finalized.8

The US FDA states CBD, whether derived from hemp or not, is a drug. It is therefore not legal as a supplement or food ingredient. Eight states, however, have approved its use without a doctor’s recommendation, thereby also allowing recreational use.9 Other states require the recommendation of an authorized medical professional, thereby creating a quasi-drug status. It is illegal to sell CBD across state lines.

Elsewhere, Canada made CBD legal for recreational and medical use on October 17, 2018. This rule does not, however, override provincial laws and so CBD may remain illegal in some provinces. Switzerland allows the sale of CBD and other cannabis products with less than 1% THC. A number of countries, including Argentina, Australia and Chile recognize CBD as a drug.10 The World Health Organization recommends that CBD is not scheduled as a psychotropic substance.11

Legal Status of Smoking or Edible Cannabis (Marijuana)

In the US, certain states now allow the sale of edible cannabis products, authorizing their own licensing and testing requirements. For example, the State of Washington considers the product matrix and the production chain. This means testing requirements can involve potency, moisture and water activity, foreign matter screening, enterobacteria, pathogenic E. coli and Salmonella, mycotoxins (total aflatoxin, ochratoxin A – both max 20 ug/kg), heavy metal screening (inorganic arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury) and residual solvent screening.12 In addition, pesticide residues must not exceed listed action levels and non-listed residues must not exceed 0.1 mg/kg.13 There is, however, no consistency between state requirements, with some authorities demanding specific test requirements and others remaining vague.

Canada has allowed products for smoking since October 17, 2018, but is still considering regulations for edible and topical products. The main difference between these items and the non-cannabis items will be the level and limit of THC, such as 10 mg THC per package. For edible solid products, therefore, all other food or cosmetic safety requirements will apply. However, the addition of certain ingredients – vitamins, minerals, caffeine and alcohol – are prohibited. In addition, it will be illegal to sell to minors and packaging must be plain with specific labeling requirements.14

The Netherlands considers cannabis to be a soft drug – see also hash, sleeping pills and sedatives – and it can be sold in coffee shops. People are restricted to a maximum of 5g of soft drugs per day and it is illegal to sell to under 18s and non-residents. Stock in the coffee shop cannot exceed 500g and they cannot also sell hard drugs or alcohol.

Asian countries that are moving towards legalization include: Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, South Korea, China and Japan. Some analysts believe medicinal cannabis could be legalized in Thailand by the end of the year. Sri Lanka is beginning to cultivate cannabis for medicinal export and is considering legalizing Ayurvedic use. In China and Japan, cannabis remains illegal but both have approved limited cultivation and officially sanctioned research into the plant's potential benefits.

SGS Solutions

Confusion is the defining term when looking at the legal status’ surround cannabis and products made from cannabis. Manufacturers and suppliers of these products need to understand both the technical characteristics of their product in relation to THC levels and the legal status in their target market.

With a global network of experts and dedicated laboratories, SGS offers a comprehensive range of services to help manufacturers and suppliers of cannabis products remain legal and compliant.

For the complete range of SGS services and support visit SGS Food Safety or send an email to us.