Hong Kong is criminalizing CBD as a ‘dangerous drug’ alongside heroin


Two years ago, cannabidiol was booming in Hong Kong. The compound, known as CBD, popped up in cafes, restaurants and shops, with companies eager to enter an exciting new market that was already well established in countries around the world.

That came to an end on Wednesday, when CBD was criminalized in the city and declared a “dangerous drug” on the same level as heroin and fentanyl.

CBD is a chemical found in hemp and marijuana plants. It’s non-psychoactive, meaning it won’t get you high; instead, CBD is often marketed for everything from helping relieve pain and inflammation to reducing stress and anxiety.

It has exploded in popularity worldwide in recent years, with brands adding it to shampoos, potions, body oils, gummy bears and dog treats. In the United States and Europe, it may be sold in coffee shops and farmer’s markets, large and luxury department stores, and even drugstore chain CVS.

CBD cookies at the Found cafe in Hong Kong on August 11, 2022.

But last June, a bill banning CBD was introduced to Hong Kong lawmakers and came into effect on February 1.

Under the new law, possession and use of any amount of CBD is punishable by seven years in prison and a fine of HK$1 million ($127,607). Producing, importing or exporting CBD is punishable by life imprisonment.

Even travelers could be penalized, with the government warning people not to risk “purchasing or returning these products to Hong Kong”.

The same penalties and conditions apply to cannabis, also known as marijuana.

The ban has forced CBD-focused businesses to shut down, while other brands have had to backtrack or get rid of CBD products.

“It’s a shame because there’s definitely a missed opportunity,” said Luke Yardley, founder of Yardley Brothers Craft Brewery, which had previously sold four products with CBD – a lager and three non-alcoholic drinks. “I think anything that doesn’t get you drunk and helps you relax is probably a good thing.”

The health benefits and risks of CBD have long been debated. In the US, most CBD products are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means that people can purchase items from the store.

Some studies have shown that the compound can relieve pain and be helpful for people who have trouble sleeping. The FDA has approved one CBD-containing drug for the treatment of rare, severe forms of epilepsy.

But concerns have also been raised, with some experts saying there isn’t enough scientific research on how CBD works or its potential effects.

In January, the FDA announced that CBD products need a new regulatory trajectory in the US, saying, “We have not found sufficient evidence to determine how much CBD can be consumed, and for how long, before it causes harm.”

Books on CBD at the Found cafe in Hong Kong on August 11, 2022.

In Hong Kong, which has strict cannabis laws, the government’s concern revolves around the possible presence of its sister compound THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) in CBD products. THC is also found in cannabis plants and is responsible for the ‘high’.

In the US and Europe, CBD products can contain up to 0.3% – a trace amount – of THC, but even that is not acceptable in Hong Kong. And while CBD products can avoid this trace amount by using a pure form of CBD, most manufacturers mix other compounds for higher potency.

From 2019 to early 2022, Hong Kong authorities launched nearly 120 “operations” seizing and testing CBD products from restaurants and shops to warehouses, Security Minister Tang Ping-keung said last year. He added that more than 3,800 products were found to contain THC, but did not provide further details on the proportion or percentage of THC in those products.

In a written response to questions from the Legislative Council, Tang suggested that the government’s traditionally tough stance on THC should be applied to CBD “to protect public health.”

“We have adopted ‘zero tolerance’ for drugs and we understand it is a matter of public interest,” he said. “That’s why the government plans to control CBD.”

The Narcotics Action Committee, a group of representatives from “the fields of social work, education, medical and community service” that advises the government on anti-drug policies, said in a statement last November that it supported the CBD ban and the government. goal of “a drug-free Hong Kong”.

Many companies began bracing for regulatory changes in 2022 ahead of the government’s official announcement in January.

Yardley Brothers Craft Brewery stopped making its CBD beverages late last year in anticipation of the ban, and all of its remaining products were sold out by December, Yardley said.

He said the CBD drinks were “very popular,” accounting for about 8% of sales, as they provided adults with a non-alcoholic option to enjoy when out with friends. In some bars, regulars “come in every weekend for a glass of CBD lemonade,” he said.

Now “there is less choice for consumers in Hong Kong. That’s not necessarily a step in the right direction,” he said.

Some businesses have been forced to close completely.

Med Chef, a restaurant set to open in 2021, once boasted that it offered Hong Kong’s “first full menu of CBD-infused cocktails, starters and mains”. In a press release during the launch, the restaurant’s founder highlighted the health and wellness benefits of CBD.

But at early November 2022 it had closed its doors. “We have worked hard in the past to present CBD in the most acceptable form and integrate our food and drink concepts,” the restaurant wrote in a farewell message on Instagram. “It is a pity that it did not go as we had hoped. Ultimately, under the latest policies of those in power, we are unable to continue with everyone.”

Hong Kong’s first CBD cafe, Found, had also made headlines when it opened in 2020. It sold a variety of CBD products, including infused coffee and beer, oils to help sleep, powder to sprinkle in food and pet products to relieve stiff joints.

It closed at the end of September 2022, telling customers on Instagram that their positive feedback had shown that “CBD could help cope with the stresses of everyday life.”

“Unfortunately, despite the demonstrable positive impact, it has now become clear that the Hong Kong government intends to pass new legislation to ban the sale and possession of CBD,” it wrote.

Yardley said the government’s concerns about THC were valid, but argued they could have implemented better regulations, such as requiring certifications or safety standards around CBD samples.

“It’s quite an extreme reaction to just ban it completely,” he said.

And as the brewery continues to make plans for alternative non-alcoholic beverages to fill the gap, Yardley hopes CBD will be back on the menu. “I hope for the future that it will become legal again,” he said.

This story has been updated with details of the draft legislation and its introduction.

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