Hong Kong’s ‘Dangerous Drug’ CBD Ban to Begin

In a starkly different approach from the U.S. and many other places around the world, Hong Kong moved to ban CBD and categorize it as a dangerous drug last October, and the ban begins on Wednesday.

Time reports that beginning on Wednesday, harsh penalties and huge fines—typically associated with hard narcotics—will be applied to people in Hong Kong caught in the possession, production, or smuggling of CBD.

Following in the footsteps of measures laid out in mainland China, Hong Kong’s CBD ban was announced last year, when government officials cited the difficulty of distinguishing pure CBD from THC, and the possibility of contamination during the production process. They also cited the way CBD can be converted to THC—typically in the production of delta-8 THC and other cannabinoids.

According to the Hong Kong Free Press, a Hong Kong Legislative Council Panel on Security announced in June that it would pursue a ban on CBD. Then in August, Hong Kong officials began cracking down on CBD businesses. Residents were given three months from Oct. 27 to dispose of their CBD products in special boxes set up around the city.

The full ban on CBD in the semi-autonomous administrative region begins within days.

“Starting from February 1, cannabidiol, aka CBD, will be regarded as a dangerous drug and will be supervised and managed by the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance,” customs intelligence officer Au-Yeung Ka-lun said at a press briefing.

“As of then, transporting CBD for sale, including import and export, as well as producing, possessing and consuming CBD, will be illegal,” Au-Yeung said.

People caught importing, exporting, or producing CBD can face up to life in prison and Hong Kong $5 million ($638,000) in fines. People caught in possession of CBD can face a sentence of up to seven years imprisonment and Hong Kong $1 million ($128,000) in fines.

“We will tackle all kinds of dangerous drugs from all angles and all ends, and the intelligence-led enforcement action is our major goal,” Chan Kai-ho, a divisional commander with the department’s Airport Command, told reporters Friday.

Chan said authorities would enforce the law on a case-by-case basis and “seek legal advice from our Department of Justice to determine what the further actions will be.”

South China Morning Post reports that since 2019, the department said it has seized over 4,100 CBD items that were found to contain traces of THC. Between January 2018 and December 2022, authorities arrested 38 people for their suspected connections to 68 cases where CBD products were believed to contain THC.

Hong Kong customs officials arrested nine people, seizing 25,000 CBD items worth  $14.6 million Hong Kong dollars after the products were found to contain traces of an illegal cannabinoid in January 2022.

It’s quite a change from 2020, when Hong Kong’s first CBD cafe opened, selling a full range of CBD-based cannabis products including vials of CBD oil for personal use, powders to be added to foods such as oil and butters, and other products, including products for pets who need pain relief. They also sold CBD-infused beer and coffee for those who wanted to stay awhile in the cafe. 

Nearby in Mainland China, CBD is banned in cosmetics, as well as all synthetic cannabinoids, which are typically made from CBD. But keep in mind that China is blamed as one of the world’s major sources of fentanyl precursors. Moreso in China than in other parts of the world, synthetic cannabinoids are mixed with other drugs more frequently.

Jaycee Chan, son of Hong Kong native Jackie Chan, served a six month sentence in 2014-2015 for hosting a get-together with weed in his Beijing apartment. That was during a crackdown on illegal drugs in the city.

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Hong Kong Expected To Ban CBD

According to the Hong Kong Free Press, a Hong Kong Legislative Council Panel on Security announced in June that it would pursue a ban on CBD. In a written paper, the council claimed that the reason for this is because CBD always has the potential to contain trace amounts of THC. “It is nearly inevitable that CBD products manufactured from CBD isolates contain certain levels of THC, even though at trace levels or levels below the detection limits of various analytical methods,” the council wrote.

This enforcement is leading to the raid of many CBD businesses. In one example, the story of Daniel (a fake name to protect the individual’s identity) explained the situation. He had operated his business for three years before the raid occurred. “My mind was blank as I watched the officers taking all my products off the shelves one by one,” said Daniel. “Everything I did went to waste.” Daniel noted that no officers told him that his products contained THC. Prior to the raid, he personally sent products in for testing that reported that no THC was present.

Hong Kong law enforcement has been targeting CBD business owners since November 2021, having seized more than 30,000 CBD products. An unknown number of these products were tested, and allegedly one third contained THC.

The Hong Kong Free Press also noted that 34 people have been arrested for “trafficking dangerous drugs and possession of dangerous drugs.” No charges have been made yet, and all of them were released on bail, although they are currently still under investigation. According to the Narcotics Division, “any quantity of a dangerous drug shall be a dangerous drug.”

The Legislative Council’s paper claimed that CBD will decompose into THC. Hong Kong Free Press reached out to University of California, Davis Professor Donald Land, who confirmed that this is true, but any THC created would produce “an extremely small effect.” “The government position clearly points at the mere presence of any amount of dangerous drug, and not on the effects, or lack thereof,” Land said.

Denise Tam, owner of the online CBD store Heavens Please, also spoke about the government’s reasoning. “As we know, there is no absolute zero in science,” Tam said. “The government probably found 0.00001 per cent of THC. What’s the impact of that?”

Clinical Assistant Professor Dr. Albert Chung, from the University of Hong Long’s psychiatry department, told Hong Kong Free Press that research on THC is more limited than those analyzing CBD. To law enforcement though, cannabis is defined as a “dangerous drug.” “In Hong Kong, all psychoactive drugs including cannabis, ketamine, opioids, are categorised [by authorities] into one group—dangerous drugs,” Chung said.

Chung recently published a study called “Attitudes and beliefs of medical students on cannabis in Hong Kong.” Although his students were supportive of “training and research” on cannabis, Chung believes it could take years for Hong Kong to recognize the effectiveness of CBD as a medicine instead of a dangerous drug. “It would be quite difficult for Hong Kong to have medical cannabis in the next 10 years,” Chung said.

In the meantime, it appears that some patients who have found relief with CBD are stocking up, and are expecting CBD to quickly disappear from store shelves for the time being. “That CBD could even be sold in Hong Kong was a big step. Now, we’re moving backwards,” said one consumer.

Back in September 2020, Hong Kong’s first CBD cafe, called Found, opened in the Sheung Wan district. However, the cafe announced on August 19 that it would be closing in anticipation of the looming CBD ban. “Sadly, in spite of the demonstrable positive impact, it has now become apparent that the Hong Kong government intends to adopt new legislation to prohibit the sale and possession of CBD,” Found wrote on its Instagram page. “While we do not know exactly when it will take effect, it is expected to happen sometime around the end of 2022 or early 2023. With this, we have had to make the difficult decision to close the Found café at the end of September.”

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