Two years ago, cannabidiol was booming in Hong Kong. The compound, known as CBD, was popping up in cafes, restaurants and stores, with companies keen to join an exciting new market that was already well established in countries around the world.
This all came to an end on Wednesday, when CBD was criminalized in the city and declared a “dangerous drug” along with heroin and fentanyl.
CBD is a chemical found in hemp and marijuana plants. It’s non-psychoactive, which means it won’t get you high; instead, CBD is often marketed for everything from helping to relieve pain and inflammation to reducing stress and anxiety.
It has grown in popularity around the world in recent years, with brands adding it to shampoos, drinks, body oils, gummy bears and dog treats. In the United States and Europe, you can find it sold at cafes and farmers’ markets, mom-and-pop and high-end department stores, and even the CVS drugstore chain.
But on January 27, the Hong Kong government announced that a ban on CBD would come into effect within a week, pledging to “fiercely combat related drug trafficking activities”.
Under the new legislation, possession and consumption of any amount of CBD is punishable by up to seven years in prison and a fine of HK$1 million ($127,607). Manufacturing, importing or exporting CBD is punishable by life imprisonment.
Even travelers could face penalties, with the government warning people not to risk “buying these products or bringing them back to Hong Kong”.
The same penalties and conditions apply to cannabis, also known as marijuana.
The ban forced CBD-focused businesses to close, while other brands had to back down 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 previously sold four products. containing CBD – one lager and three soft drinks. “I think anything that you can’t get drunk on that helps you relax is probably a good thing.”
The health benefits and risks of CBD have long been debated. In the United States, most CBD products are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means people can purchase items off the shelf.
Some research has shown that the compound can relieve pain and may be helpful for those who have trouble sleeping. The FDA has approved a drug containing CBD to treat rare and 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 will require a new regulatory pathway in the United States, stating, “We did not find sufficient evidence to determine how much CBD can be consumed and for how long. before causing damage.
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 could avoid this tiny amount by using a pure form of CBD, most manufacturers blend other compounds for higher potency.
From 2019 to early 2022, Hong Kong authorities launched nearly 120 “operations” to seize and test CBD products from restaurants and shops to warehouses, the security secretary said last year. Tang Ping-keung. He added that more than 3,800 products contained THC, but did not elaborate on the proportion or percentage of THC in those products.
In a written response to questions posed to 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 embraced ‘zero tolerance’ on drugs and understand that this is a matter of public interest,” he said. “Therefore, the government plans to control CBD.”
The Narcotics Action Committee, a group of representatives from “the fields of social work, education, medicine and community services” which advises the government on drug policy, said in a statement in last November that he supported the CBD ban and the government’s goal of “a drug-free Hong Kong”.
Many companies started preparing for regulatory changes in 2022, ahead of the official government announcement in January.
Yardley Brothers Craft Brewery stopped making its CBD drinks late last year in anticipation of the ban, and all of its remaining products were sold out by December, Yardley said.
He said CBD drinks had been “very popular”, accounting for around 8% of the business, as they offered adults a non-alcoholic option to enjoy 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. It’s not necessarily a step in the right direction,” he said.
Some businesses have been forced to close completely.
Med Chef, a restaurant that opened in 2021, once boasted Hong Kong’s “first full menu of CBD cocktails, starters and entrees”. In a press release at its launch, the restaurant’s founder highlighted the health and wellness benefits of CBD.
But early November 2022, it had closed its doors. “We have worked hard in the past to present CBD in its most palatable form and integrate our food and beverage concepts,” the restaurant wrote in a farewell post on Instagram. “It’s a shame that things didn’t go as we hoped. Under the latest policies of those in power, we are ultimately unable to continue with everyone.
Hong Kong’s first CBD cafe, Found, also made headlines when it opened in 2020. It sold a variety of CBD products, including brewed coffee and beers, oils to help sleep, dusting powder in food and pet products to help relieve stiff joints.
It closed at the end of September 2022, telling customers on Instagram that their positive feedback had shown “CBD can help 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,” he 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 a pretty extreme response to ban it altogether,” he said.
And while the brewery will continue to operate, with plans for alternative soft drinks to fill the void, Yardley hopes CBD will be back on the menu. “I hope for the future that it will become legal again,” he said.