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CBD Tends to Perplex Regulators. Hong Kong’s New Ban Reinforces Asia’s Strict Drug Approach

Hong Kong on Wednesday made possession, consumption, and distribution of cannabidiol, or CBD, illegal.

While some governments across the world have legalized or moved toward decriminalizing cannabis, including Thailand last year, cannabis itself remains illegal in most countries, with related offenses often punishable by long prison sentences.

Still, products containing the cannabis-derived compound CBD have become increasingly popular in recent years, touted to have therapeutic benefits. And it’s long existed in a legal gray area for regulators. As of last February, the global market for CBD was estimated to reach $48 billion by 2028.

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In Hong Kong, a growing market had emerged for products containing CBD, ranging from skincare to food and beverage items. Months before the ban, one could, for example, walk into a specialty cafe and buy CBD-infused chocolate chip cookies or get a few drops of the compound in their smoothie or coffee.

But local authorities have argued that the science behind CBD’s supposed therapeutic qualities is not absolute and that its use may actually have harmful side effects. As of Feb. 1, CBD has been categorized as a “dangerous drug,” along with the likes of heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine.

Hong Kong Cannabis Cafe
Vincent Yu—APEmployees work at the Found Cafe—which served CBD-infused coffee, tea, biscuits and other sweets—in Hong Kong on Sept. 13, 2020. The substance is now illegal in the city.

What exactly is CBD and why is it banned?

Cannabidiol (abbreviated CBD) is one of the chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant or hemp. In Hong Kong and elsewhere, the cannabis plant itself is considered a dangerous drug—more commonly referred to as marijuana, weed, or pot. But that’s because another compound from the plant, called tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC), has psychoactive properties and, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control argues, may cause addiction.

An expert panel from the World Health Organization found in 2017, however, that on its own, CBD appears to be neither harmful nor prone to abuse—though it still does not recommend the compound for medical use.

Some studies have even found that CBD use has therapeutic value, particularly for people suffering from seizures and clinical anxiety.

But Hong Kong narcotics officials argue that these studies have not been authoritatively proven. They also cite expert opinion that pure CBD is difficult to extract from cannabis plants, and they say that, of CBD products they seized, around a third contained THC.

How is CBD regulated in other parts of Asia?

When Thailand legalized cannabis products, including CBD, nationwide last year, some commentators speculated that it could be the beginning of a broader drug policy liberalization for Asia, where strict rules are predominant.

But Hong Kong’s new ban is more in line with the policies of other countries in the region, with few exceptions.

In Singapore, for example, which is notorious for its zero-tolerance approach to drugs, CBD is considered a cannabis product, and even its use by Singaporean citizens or permanent residents while abroad is prosecutable.

And in China, reportedly the world’s largest hemp-cultivating country, CBD was made completely illegal in 2022.

That said, some countries in the region allow CBD use under certain circumstances.

South Korea, for example, eased restrictions on the use of medical cannabis, including some CBD products, in 2018, but with strict safeguards like an application process and the submission of prescriptions and medical records.

Japan, where violating cannabis-possession laws can lead to imprisonment for up to 10 years, allows using CBD that isn’t derived from parts of the plant other than the stalk and the seed. Also, local paper Yomiuri Shimbun reported in October that Japan’s health ministry is eyeing amendments to cannabis control legislation to make way for CBD drugs for patients with intractable epilepsy.

What does this mean for the future of CBD regulation elsewhere?

Debate is ongoing about how to regulate CBD without undermining the potential benefits.

Fung Sai-fu, an instructor at the department of social and behavioral sciences at City University of Hong Kong, believes legislation restricting CBD is needed, citing potential traces of THC sometimes found in CBD products. “There is no clear scientific evidence to support CBD with those advertised health benefits,” he adds.

On the other hand, Gloria Lai, an Asia regional director for the International Drug Policy Consortium, tells TIME that criminalizing CBD is “problematic,” given the potential benefits and the absence of proven risks to its use, like dependence or overdose. “It can potentially result in a ‘moral panic’ amongst other countries, resulting in them taking similar measures,” Lai said.

Lai referred to the European Union Court of Justice’s decision in 2020 that says CBD extracted from cannabis plants should not be considered a drug under the 1961 U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

In the U.S., regulators are still grappling with the uncertainty surrounding CBD. While CBD sourced from cannabis plants is federally illegal, CBD extracted from hemp containing no more than 0.3% THC on a dry weight basis is allowed. (States may have varying laws on cannabis and its derivative products.)

Just last week, the FDA, after rejecting petitions to allow CBD to be marketed as a dietary supplement, said that “a new regulatory pathway for CBD is needed that balances individuals’ desire for access to CBD products with the regulatory oversight needed to manage risks.” The agency added that it has plans to work with Congress on these rules.