Why did Hong Kong criminalize CBD?

cannabidiol products in Hong Kong
cannabidiol products in Hong Kong PETER PARKS / Contributor/Getty Images

A law banning CBD products has officially gone into effect in Hong Kong. Despite the growing number of CBD businesses popping up over the past few years, city officials have criminalized the substance. Here's what you need to know about Hong Kong's CBD product ban:

What is CBD?

CBD, or cannabidiol, is one of the chemicals known as cannabinoids that are found in hemp and marijuana plants. Both plants are part of the Cannabis sativa plant family, but they differ in which is the more prevalent cannabinoid. CBD is extracted from industrial hemp, while marijuana remains more widely illegal mainly due to high concentrations of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). Unlike its sister compound, CBD is non-psychoactive, meaning it won't get you high. Instead, limited research and anecdotal evidence suggest CBD can help with chronic pain and inflammation and reduce stress and anxiety. Some studies also indicate that it could effectively treat sleep issues.

Despite the recent boom in global popularity, experts continue to debate CBD's health benefits and risks. Still-shifting laws have led to the proliferation of CBD products and rapid growth in the cannabis industry. As of Feb. 2022, the global market for CBD was estimated to grow to $48 billion, per Vantage Market Research.

Why is Hong Kong changing its policies on CBD?

Two years ago, "cannabidiol was booming in Hong Kong," says CNN, and local business owners were "eager to join an exciting new market already well-established in countries around the world." That all recently came to a screeching halt when the city criminalized the substance. On Feb. 1, a new policy categorizing CBD as a "dangerous drug" went into effect. The legislative ban, introduced by Hong Kong lawmakers last June, puts the substance in a similar boat as heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine, Time magazine reports. Under the new law, the possession and consumption of any amount of CBD are punishable by seven years imprisonment and a fine of up to 1 million Hong Kong dollars ($127,607 USD), per CNN. Manufacturing, importing, or exporting CBD would lead to a life sentence. The government warns that travelers could also face penalties, warning people not to try "buying these products or bringing them back to Hong Kong."

The government's narcotics officials' concerns revolve around potential traces of THC in CBD products. According to the Time report, local authorities also argue that the studies showing CBD's health benefits have not been authoritatively proven. In a written response to questions raised by the Legislative Council Secretary for Security Tang Ping-keung said that throughout 120 "operations," law enforcement found over 3,8000 seized products with traces of THC. He suggested that the government should apply its strict cannabis laws to CBD products as well.

"We have adopted 'zero tolerance' towards drugs and we understand that it is a matter of public concern," he said, per CNN. "Therefore, the government plans to control CBD."

Hong Kong is following the lead of some of the more stringent drug regulations in neighboring countries. Singapore, for example, has a strict zero-tolerance approach that outlaws CBD use by Singaporean citizens or permanent residents domestically and abroad. China made CBD illegal in 2022, despite reportedly being one of the largest hemp cultivators, per Time.

How is this affecting local business owners?

Some local businesses have phased out their CBD products, while others have decided to close altogether. Yardley Brothers Craft Brewery stopped making its CBD beverages last year in preparation for the ban, selling out its remaining inventory at the end of last year. Founder Luke Yardley told CNN, "It's a shame because there's a missed opportunity for sure." Found, Hong Kong's first CBD cafe, closed at the end of Sept. 2022 in response to the ban.

In an Instagram post thanking its patrons for their support, Found wrote, "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."

Med Chef, a restaurant that once offered Hong Kong's "first full menu of CBD-infused cocktails, appetizers, and entrees," also closed its doors by Nov. 2022. The restaurant's farewell post said, "It's a pity that things didn't go the way we hoped. Under the latest policies of those in power, we ultimately aren't able to continue forward with everyone."

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