In Hong Kong, the CBD Crackdown Begins
Labeled as a dangerous drug, jail time and fines imposed if caught.
The next time you’re feeling down about the lack of progress you’re having in getting a safe, reliable and consistent supply of CBD in your local store, you may want to take a look at what’s been happening recently in Hong Kong. At the start of the ‘20s, CBD was a booming growth industry in the South Chinese special administrative region of Hong Kong. Restaurants and bars sold drinks infused with the non-addictive, non-intoxifying compound; it could also be found in food, beverages and cosmetics. Whole businesses cropped up to support this growing business. But ever since the beginning of February, 2023, CBD has now been labeled a dangerous drug, on par with heroin or cocaine, and those caught possessing or consuming it can be thrown in jail for seven years and fined $1 million Hong Kong dollars. And they do mean business; authorities made their first arrest earlier in February when it intercepted a package containing two bottles of CBD-containing body oil mailed to the suspect from Denmark. Police also found cannabis buds and a grinder at his home.
In the months prior to the CBD prohibition, CBD businesses made short work of liquidating their inventories, marking down their products in gigantic fire sales. The Hong Kong government placed amnesty boxes throughout the city for people to take their now-outlawed CBD products. Those who built their careers on CBD itself are now pivoting towards wellness, wary of being connected with a compound the government now sees on a par with heroin or cocaine.
Of course, the World Health Organization, and governments around the world, including the United States, do not concur with this bleak assessment. Just six years ago, the WHO determined that CBD was not a drug of abuse, nor was it harmful. Even in prohibitionist Japan, the government has been exploring ways it can be legalized in the form of CBD medications for epileptic patients. The government’s rational for their draconian ban is threefold.
- Pure CBD is hard to extract from the plant: Asian drug authorities are particularly leery of intoxicating substances, and while CBD itself is not intoxicating, whatever ends up in the final extraction may be. Between the years 2019-2022, Hong Kong authorities confiscated goods from shops, warehouses and restaurants in 120 “operations,” and found that a third of the products contained THC, a compound Hong Kong authorities have zero tolerance for.
- According to the state, CBD is not as safe as advertised: In spite of the WHO’s findings, public health officials continue to be leery of the industry’s overall health and wellness claims. This comes even as Thailand continues to push forward with medical cannabis and hemp, and South Korea begins its medicalization of cannabis.
- People are expressing more interest in drugs post-COVID: A survey taken last year by the city’s Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups found that mentions of recreational drug use had shot up by a factor of three between the years 2016 to 2021. This also coincided with an even greater increase in CBD mentions, which shot up from 5707 mentions in 2019 to 42,980 in 2021. Because of CBD’s proximity to THC, it’s possible that lawmakers, already determining a ban on the products, saw them as equivalents.
While those government forces which advocated for a hard-line position on CBD have won out, those who built businesses around it have scrambled to readjust to this new reality. Penalties for selling CBD are even greater, after all — up to $5 million in fines and life in jail for offenders. Those that already had other offerings for their clients, such as bars which sold CBD mocktails or non-alcoholic beers as health-derived alternatives to alcohol, have just cut their losses. Others, such as the CBD restaurant Med Chef, have simply closed their doors. “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,” it announced in its final Instagram post. Whether or not Hong Kong residents can be punished for CBD they consume in legal countries as they are in Singapore is unclear, but considering the backlash, it very well could be.