Hong Kong officially categorised cannabidiol (CBD) as a dangerous drug under the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance on February 1.
Under the law, possession and consumption of CBD will be subjected to a maximum penalty of seven years’ imprisonment and a fine of HKD$1 million (US$127k).
The presence of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) detected in CBD products has been cited as one of the reasons for executing the ban.
Prior to the ban, CBD products could be sold in Hong Kong so long as they do not contain THC.
“I think it [the ban] could be due to the number of products detected to contain THC, which is the compound that causes addiction.
“Moreover, the Hong Kong authorities are not convinced by the existing evidence on the health benefits provided by CBD,” said Wai Mun Poon, principal regulatory consultant at Wong SJ Asia told NutraIngredients-Asia.
In February last year, Tang Ping-keung, Hong Kong’s secretary for security said in the legislative council that since year 2019, more than 3,800 CBD products sold across the island was found to have contained THC during law enforcement exercise.
These products included food, health supplements, oral oil, e-cigarette oil or additives, skin care products, personal care products, massage products, and pet food.
Heavens Please, a Hong Kong start-up which used to sell CBD products prior to the ban, said that a challenge CBD retailers faced, was getting CBD products that contained zero THC levels, especially when the products were imported from overseas.
"In other countries, there is a set level of THC that is allowed or not allowed. Some consumers or companies that are not aware of this may inappropriately import products that are not allowed in Hong Kong, because they [the products] said there's no THC, but they actually mean that it's under 0.2 per cent or under 0.3 per cent, which is not acceptable in Hong Kong's case," co-founder Denise Tam told us.
Referring to the Hong Kong government's stance on no THC in CBD products as "murky", she pointed out that the government had in the past researched about the laws and regulations on CBD products in different countries, and in its report, the maximum permissible limits of THC in CBD products were stated in other countries.
"They had since a long time ago conducted a research and there's a detailed report about laws and regulations on CBD products over the world, which clearly stated the THC levels which are allowed in products, such as 0.2 per cent of THC in most European countries and 0.3 per cent in the USA.
"In some countries, only CBD isolates are allowed, and in the case of Hong Kong, the government only said that no THC is allowed, which is very murky and unclear for consumption, for customers who purchase CBD products, and for businesses who are importing and creating CBD products, because it is not clear at all.
"And there’s nothing call ‘zero’ in science. There is always a level, it’s whether its parts per million or parts per billion, there is always a percentage that can be detected, but it depends on the detection level, how low they can go. So there's always a percentage or an amount that is set in the regulated substances," she said, explaining that there should be “a number” and “a clear line on what’s allowed and not allowed.”
She said that her company had removed CBD products before the ban had kicked in and had no plans to dabble in the CBD business overseas.
To assist the disposal of CBD products, the Hong Kong government had arranged for disposal boxes for voluntary disposal from October last year. As of January 29, around 77,400 items containing CBD were collected, which mainly consist of skin care products, edible oils, and health supplements.
Neither does Tam plan sell products containing other cannabinoids such as cannabigerol (CBG) – another non-psychoactive component of the cannabis plant, although she is aware of some businesses that are exploring the opportunity.
"Some business are continuing to develop other kinds of cannabinoids. I know that, but this won't be our focus because going through other ways to work around the government's regulation is useless in my own point of view.
"The government has put up commercials everywhere in public, on TV advertisements, and everywhere in the city, that CBD is a drug and using it will cause impairments to your health. Public perception has changed," she said, adding that her company would be selling other herbal and tea products instead.
CBD and THC
Janet Schloss, clinical research fellow at Australia’s National Centre for Naturopathic Medicine housed within Southern Cross University, said it was possible to get CBD products that’s completely void of THC.
“You can get broad spectrum CBD that doesn’t have any THC in it. You are also able to get isolates of CBD which has no other cannabinoids in them,” said the scientist who has a special interest in CBD research in response to our queries.
“You can definitely get products with no THC in them at all,” she added.
Poon, on the other hand, said that although food and food supplements were generally less tightly controlled as compared to medicinal products, regulators will still find it difficult to allow CBD if controlling THC was a challenge.
“If there is risk of CBD oils containing THC and other toxic substances that were not removed during extraction process, it will be difficult for regulators to consider allowing CBD oils in food and food supplements,” she said.
She added that aside from Thailand which have permitted CBD products, it was unlikely for other Asia-Pacific countries to allow CBD in food and food supplements in the near future.
“Some of Asia Pac countries may allow the registration of CBD as medicinal products, which are subjected to more stringent regulatory control, as they required full safety, efficacy and quality evaluation and approval,” she said.