Hong Kong’s zero-tolerance approach to drugs leaves budding CBD industry high and dry

Earlier this year, Daniel scanned the empty shelves in his store. With almost nothing but a checkout counter and minimalist decor, his shop in a busy district of Hong Kong suddenly seemed much bigger.

The businessman used to spend most of his waking hours there. But he hadn’t been back in two weeks since the day police officers showed up, conducted an hours-long raid and arrested him on suspicion of drug possession. Remembering the nightmare, Daniel said, was akin to “digging up some traumatic memory.”

Daniel’s CBD store was raided by officers from the Department of Customs and Excise earlier this year. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Overnight, he was forced to close his three-year-old business. His ambitions to head up Hong Kong’s largest CBD lifestyle store, shaped by his belief in the benefits of cannabis extract, were dashed in an instant.

“My mind was blank as I watched the officers take all my products off the shelves one by one,” Daniel, who asked not to use his real name because he is still under investigation, told HKFP. “Everything I did was lost.”

Soon, Daniel will have plenty of company in his misfortune. A government proposal to criminalize CBD expected to be passed by the end of the year will shut down dozens of CBD businesses in a city that enforces strict laws against drug use, although advocates say the substance it has practically no narcotic properties.

An imminent ban

Cannabidiol, or CBD, is one of over 100 compounds found in the cannabis plant. Users and companies tout its effectiveness in relieving everything from anxiety to muscle aches and eczema.

The literature on the cannabis component is mixed, with some researchers inclined to conclude that it has healing properties, and others attributing any benefit to a placebo effect.

Even so, an entire industry has been built around CBD in recent years. The chemical constituent is transformed into edible oils, moisturizers, gummies, protein powders and more. CBD is arguably more widespread in Western countries, where there has been a wave of legalization of medicinal cannabis and a push to decriminalize it for recreational use. But Hong Kong, where cannabis is illegal, has also seen growing interest in CBD.

Dozens of CBD shops, both online and brick-and-mortar, have sprung up across the city. A CBD-themed spa sits on a quiet street in Sheung Wan, while a neon-lit restaurant on the first floor of a Tsim Sha Tsui building bills itself as “Hong Kong’s first dedicated CBD fusion restaurant”.

But soon, they will all have to close up shop. In June, the government proposed a ban on CBD, saying it is “almost inevitable” that CBD products will contain traces of tetrahydrocannabinol, which is illegal in Hong Kong.

More commonly known as THC, the compound is the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis. The adverse effects of long-term cannabis use, such as an increased risk of mental health disorders, are similar to those produced by THC alone, according to the World Health Organization. said.

A CBD themed spa in Sheung Wan. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Authorities have begun cracking down on CBD sellers since last November, with more than 30,000 CBD products suspected of containing THC seized, the Security Bureau told HKFP. Among those tested in a government laboratory, about a third contained the psychoactive compound.

A total of 34 people have been arrested for alleged offenses related to CBD products, including trafficking in dangerous drugs and possession of dangerous drugs. No charges have been filed against them, and all are free on bail pending further investigations.

The narcotics division said it plans to “submit relevant legislation” to include CBD under the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance within the year, making CBD products illegal in Hong Kong.

“No absolute zero”

Daniel said authorities had not told him whether their products contained THC. Before putting his wares up for sale, he sent them to a hemp testing lab in the United States, which returned reports, seen by HKFP, stating that no THC was detected.

HK$14.6 million worth of CBD products suspected of containing THC were seized by Hong Kong customs in January. Photo: GovHK.

“My view was that what I was doing was legal,” he added.

In the Legislative Council paperThe narcotics division said the amount of THC present in some CBD products may not be picked up in tests because it is below the detection limits of the analytical methods used, but that the compound would still “likely exist.”

He also cited research showing that CBD can break down into THC under normal storage conditions. Donald Land, a chemistry professor with expertise in cannabis science at the University of California, Davis, told HKFP that this was true, but that the amount of THC produced would have “an extremely small effect.”

“The government’s position clearly points to the mere presence of any amount of dangerous drugs, and not the effects or lack thereof,” Land added.

For CBD users, the government’s justifications for the ban are questionable. An amount of THC so small that it is undetectable with the average laboratory test, they believe, would not cause the psychoactive effects that authorities warn about.

Customs agents hold a press conference after a raid in December 2021. Photo: Narcotics Division, via Facebook.

“As we know, there is no absolute zero in science,” Denise Tam, co-founder of online CBD store Heavens Please, told HKFP. “The government probably found 0.00001 percent THC. What’s the impact of that?”

Authorities have never released the amount of THC that was found in the CBD products that were tested. In response to HKFP, the narcotics division said that under the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance, “any quantity of a dangerous drug shall be a dangerous drug”.

The co-founder said she had already halted imports of CBD products earlier this year, predicting a ban was imminent when she saw news of government raids.

“The World Health Organization already said CBD is harmless, but Hong Kong is tightening its regulation,” said Tam, who believes CBD calms her anxiety and relieves stress. “It’s inexplicable.”

A bottle of CBD oil from Heavens Please online CBD store. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Dr. Albert Chung, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s department of psychiatry, said there is much less research on CBD compared to THC. The literature suggests that genetic factors, such as a family history of mood or psychotic disorders, could cause one to be affected by even a small amount of THC, he told HKFP.

The exact threshold at which THC’s psychoactive properties would kick in, Chung said, is “difficult to predict and would depend on the person.”

Low cultural acceptance

The impending ban on CBD is in line with the Hong Kong government’s zero-tolerance stance on marijuana, a position amplified by public education materials bearing the slogan “Cannabis is a drug.”

“In Hong Kong, all psychoactive drugs are classified, including cannabis, ketamine and opioids [by authorities] into one group: dangerous drugs,” Chung said.

The same can be said for much of Asia, he added, where authoritative voices tend to emphasize the side effects of cannabis abuse without mentioning its potential as a treatment in a medical setting.

Despite the stigma, a recent study published by Chung and his team found that medical students in Hong Kong were in favor of legalizing medical cannabis.

The research, which is the first study of its kind known in the city and the second in Asia, found that students “showed supportive attitudes towards cannabis training and research for medicinal use”.

But after decades of labeling cannabis as a dangerous drug, Chung said it could be difficult to reverse public attitudes, even if it is used in the medical field.

“It would be quite difficult for Hong Kong to have medicinal cannabis in the next ten years,” Chung said, adding that legalization would be a “long process” with “a lot” for lawmakers to consider.

Meanwhile, CBD user Penny Chong said she’s stocking up on oils and moisturizers while she still can, but admits she’s not in danger of running out anytime soon.

The 30-year-old has stocked up on dozens of CBD products in the three years since she first came across the cannabis extract, spending about HK$1,000 a month on them. Recently, he has also started experimenting with making his own CBD oils, mixing CBD isolate, a powder that includes pure CBD, with coconut oils.

Chong told HKFP that CBD helps with his headaches and skin allergies. She has also recommended CBD products to friends who have been diagnosed with cancer, after hearing that it might help with the side effects of chemotherapy.

“That CBD could even be sold in Hong Kong was a big step. Now, we’re going backwards.”

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