Earlier this year, Daniel scanned the empty shelves of his store. With nearly nothing left except a payment counter and some minimalist decor, his store in a busy Hong Kong district suddenly seemed a whole lot bigger.

The entrepreneur used to spend most of his waking hours there. But he hadn’t been back in two weeks since the day police officers showed up, conducted an hours-long raid and arrested him for suspected drug possession. Recalling the nightmare, Daniel said, was akin to “digging up some traumatic memory.”

Customs and Excise Department
Daniel’s CBD store was raided by officers from the Customs and Excise Department earlier this year. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Overnight, he was forced to shut down his business of three years. His ambitions of heading Hong Kong’s biggest CBD lifestyle store, shaped by his belief in the benefits of the cannabis extract, were dashed in an instant.

“My mind was blank as I watched the officers taking all my products off the shelves one by one,” Daniel, who asked not to use his real name as he is still under investigation, told HKFP. “Everything I did went to waste.”

Soon, Daniel will have plenty of company in his misfortune. A government proposal to criminalise CBD expected to be passed by year-end will shut down dozens of CBD businesses in a city which enforces strict laws against drug use – even though advocates say the substance has virtually no narcotic properties.

A looming ban

Cannabidiol, or CBD, is one of over 100 compounds found in the cannabis plant. Users and businesses boast its effectiveness in alleviating everything from anxiety to sore muscles to eczema.

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The literature on the cannabis component is mixed, with some researchers inclined to conclude it has healing properties, and others attributing any benefits to a placebo effect.

Still, an entire industry has been built around CBD in recent years. The chemical constituent is fashioned into edible oils, moisturisers, gummy bears, protein powder and more. CBD is arguably more widespread in Western countries, where there has been a wave of medical cannabis legalisation and a push for its decriminalisation for recreational use. But Hong Kong – where cannabis is illegal – has also seen increasing interest in CBD.

Dozens of CBD stores, both online and bricks-and-mortar businesses, have emerged across the city. A CBD-themed spa sits on a quiet street in Sheung Wan, while a neon-lit eatery on the first floor of a Tsim Sha Tsui building touts itself as “Hong Kong’s first dedicated CBD fusion restaurant.”

But soon, they will all have to shut up shop. In June, the government proposed a ban on CBD, saying it was “nearly inevitable” that CBD products contain traces of tetrahydrocannabinol, which is illegal in Hong Kong.

More commonly referred to as THC, the compound is the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis. The adverse effects of long-term cannabis use – such as increased risk of mental health disorders – are similar to those produced by THC alone, the World Health Organisation has said.

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A CBD-themed spa in Sheung Wan. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Authorities have begun cracking down on CBD sellers since last November, with over 30,000 CBD products suspected of having THC seized, the Security Bureau told HKFP. Among those tested at a government lab, around one-third contained the psychoactive compound.  

A total of 34 people have been arrested over suspected offences related to CBD products, including trafficking of dangerous drugs and possession of dangerous drugs. No charges have been laid against them, with all released on bail pending further investigations.

The Narcotics Division said it plans to “table the relevant legislation” to list CBD under the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance within the year, making CBD products illegal in Hong Kong.

‘No absolute zero’

Daniel said authorities had not told him whether his products contained THC. Before putting his merchandise up for sale, he sent them to a hemp testing laboratory in the US, which returned reports – seen by HKFP – stating that no THC was detected.

THC CBD products customs
Hong Kong Customs seized HK$14.6 million worth of CBD products suspected of containing THC in January. Photo: GovHK.

“My view was that what I was doing was legal,” he added.

In the Legislative Council paper, the Narcotics Division said that the amount of THC present in some CBD products may not be picked up in tests because it is below the detection limits of the analytical methods used, but that the compound would still “likely exist.”

It also cited research showing that CBD can decompose into THC under normal storage conditions. Donald Land, a chemistry professor with expertise in cannabis science at the University of California, Davis, told HKFP this was true – but that the amount of THC produced would have “an extremely small effect.”

“The government position clearly points at the mere presence of any amount of dangerous drug, and not on the effects, or lack thereof,” Land added.

To CBD users, the government’s justifications for the ban are questionable. A quantity of THC so small it cannot be detected by the average lab test, they believe, would not cause the psychoactive effects the authorities warn against.

narcotics division drugs cbd thc
Customs officers hold a press conference following a raid in December 2021. Photo: Narcotics Division, via Facebook.

“As we know, there is no absolute zero in science,” Denise Tam, the co-founder of online CBD store Heavens Please, told HKFP. “The government probably found 0.00001 per cent of THC. What’s the impact of that?”

Authorities have never publicised how much THC was found in the CBD products that were tested. In response to HKFP, the Narcotics Division said that in accordance with the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance, “any quantity of a dangerous drug shall be a dangerous drug.”

The co-founder said she had already halted imports of CBD products earlier this year, foreseeing that a ban was imminent when she saw news reports about the government conducting raids.

“The World Health Organisation already said CBD is harmless, yet Hong Kong is tightening its regulation,” Tam, who believes CBD calms her anxiety and relieves stress, said. “It’s unexplainable.”

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A bottle of CBD oil from online CBD shop Heavens Please. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Dr. Albert Chung, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s psychiatry department, said that there is much less research into CBD compared to THC. Literature suggests that genetic factors – such as a family history of mood or psychotic disorders – could cause one to be affected by even a trace amount of THC, he told HKFP.

The exact threshold where THC’s psychoactive properties would kick in, Chung said, is “difficult to predict and would depend on the person.”

Low cultural acceptance

The looming CBD ban is in line with the Hong Kong government’s zero-tolerance position on marijuana, a stance amplified by public education materials carrying the tagline “cannabis is a drug.”

“In Hong Kong, all psychoactive drugs including cannabis, ketamine, opioids, are categorised [by authorities] into one group – dangerous drugs,” Chung said.

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The same can be said of much of Asia, he added, where authoritative voices tend to emphasise the side effects of cannabis abuse without mentioning its potential as a treatment in a medical setting.

Despite the stigma, a recent study published by Chung and his team found that medical students in Hong Kong were in favour of legalising medical cannabis.

The research, which is the first known study of its kind in the city and the second in Asia, discovered that students “showed supportive attitudes towards training and research for cannabis on medicinal use.”

But after decades of labelling cannabis as a dangerous drug, Chung said it might be difficult to reverse public attitudes, even if for use in the medical field.

“It would be quite difficult for Hong Kong to have medical cannabis in the next ten years,” Chung said, adding that legalisation would be a “long process” with “a lot” for lawmakers to consider.

In the meantime, CBD user Penny Chong said she is stocking up on oils and moisturisers while she still can – but admits she is not in danger of running out anytime soon.

The 30-year-old has accumulated dozens of CBD products over the three years since she first came across the cannabis extract, spending around HK$1,000 a month on them. Recently, she has also begun experimenting by making her own CBD oils, mixing CBD isolate – a powder comprising pure CBD – into coconut oils.

Chong told HKFP that CBD helps with her headaches and skin allergies. She has also recommended CBD products to friends who have been diagnosed with cancer, having heard that it could help with the side effects of chemotherapy.

“That CBD could even be sold in Hong Kong was a big step. Now, we’re moving backwards.”

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Hillary Leung

Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.