HONG KONG — Hong Kong on Wednesday banned CBD as a “dangerous drug” and imposed harsh penalties for possessing it, forcing fleeing businesses to close or remodel.
Proponents say CBD, or cannabidiol, derived from the hemp plant, can help relieve stress and inflammation without getting the user high, unlike its more famous cousin THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana, which has long been associated with It has been illegal in Hong Kong since. CBD was once legal in the city, and cafes and shops selling CBD-infused products were popular with young people.
But all that is changing with the ban, which came into effect on Wednesday but was announced by the government last year. CBD-related businesses have collapsed, while others have struggled to reshape their businesses. Consumers dump their supposed cures into special collection boxes set up around the city.
The new rules reflect a zero-tolerance policy on dangerous drugs in Hong Kong, the semi-autonomous commercial hub of southern China, as well as mainland China, where CBD is banned in 2022.
The city keeps several categories of “dangerous drugs,” including “hard drugs” like heroin and cocaine.
In explaining the policy change, the Hong Kong government cited the difficulty of isolating pure CBD from cannabis, the possibility of contamination with THC during production and the relative ease with which CBD can be converted to THC.
Customs authorities last week vowed to do more to educate residents and help them understand that CBD is banned in Hong Kong, even though it is legal elsewhere.
Possession of CBD is punishable by up to seven years in prison and a HK$1 million ($128,000) fine, starting Wednesday. Those found guilty of importing, exporting or producing the substance face up to life in prison and a HK$5 million ($638,000) fine.
Some users said the ban showed the international financial center was going backwards.
“It doesn’t look like an international city,” said Jennifer Lo, owner of CBD Bakery, which began selling CBD-infused cheesecakes, cookies and drinks in 2021.
Even before the ban came into effect, her business had largely dried up, she said.
“Rumours about the ban have affected the way I do business,” she said. “Some platforms just take me offline without telling me. Then it’s not that easy to get space in the market.”
To comply with the ban, Lo dumped all of her remaining inventory, including dozens of cookies, and said she would have to rebrand her business.
A number of other providers, including the city’s first CBD cafe, which opened in 2020, have closed.
Karena Tsoi, who has used CBD skincare for her eczema for two years, said she will have to find alternative treatments.
“It’s troublesome,” she said. “Governments don’t have to regulate like this.”
Most Asian countries have strict drug laws and severe penalties, with the exception of Thailand, which last year legalized the cultivation and possession of marijuana.
Elsewhere, the debate over CBD continues.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said last week that there is insufficient evidence that CBD is safe for use in food or as a dietary supplement. It called on Congress to create new rules for the growing market.
Cannabis-derived products are increasingly popular in lotions, tinctures and edibles, while their legal status in the U.S. has been unclear, where several states have decriminalized or decriminalized the federally still illegal substance.