Hong Kong has banned cannabidiol, or CBD, adding the cannabis compound to a list of criminalised drugs including heroin and cocaine as of Wednesday.

hong kong bans cbd
Hong Kong has banned CBD. Photo: GovHK.

The ban involves the addition of CBD to the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance, joining over 200 substances listed in the ordinance, among them fentanyl, cocaine, heroin, ketamine and methamphetamine.

While CBD is not psychoactive, authorities say it is inseparable from tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the compound responsible for the high produced by cannabis, which is illegal in Hong Kong. Supporters of CBD have argued that the small amount of THC found in CBD products is not sufficient to produce its associated effects.

See also: Hong Kong’s zero-tolerance approach to drugs leaves budding CBD industry high and dry

The government has also said that CBD can decompose and be converted into THC.

CBD products marijuana cannabis
A CBD product seized by Hong Kong customs and displayed at a press conference on Jan. 27, 2023. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

With its criminalisation, the trafficking and manufacturing of CBD will now be subject to a maximum penalty of life imprisonment and a HK$5 million fine. Possession and consumption of CBD are subject to up to seven years’ imprisonment and a HK$1 million fine.

In recent years, CBD products have gained popularity in Hong Kong, with themed cafes and bars offering CBD-infused food and drinks. Physical shops and online stores also popped up selling CBD oils, gummy bears, moisturisers and other products.

77,400 CBD products collected

Ahead of the ban, authorities placed disposal boxes at selected government premises to “facilitate the disposal of CBD products,” encouraging members of the public to surrender them before they were criminalised.

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A placard with images of beverages that contain CBD displayed at a press conference by customs offers on Jan. 27, 2023. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

In a statement released on Tuesday, the government said 77,400 items – mainly skincare products, edible oils and health supplements – were collected.

During a press conference last week, customs officials reminded Hongkongers travelling abroad not to bring CBD products back into the city. They said authorities were working with airlines to place leaflets on flights to remind passengers that CBD is illegal in Hong Kong.

Brian Chan, a divisional commander at the Customs and Excise Department’s Air Passenger Division, said travellers in possession of CBD products should declare them upon arrival.

“We will investigate the cases and get legal advice from the Department of Justice and determine if there is enough evidence to conduct further actions,” Chan said.

Customs and Excise Department
Brian Chan (left) and Au Yeung Ka-lun (right) of the Customs and Excise Department speaks to reporters on Jan. 27, 2023. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

He did not directly answer a question on whether there would be a grace period during which people who enter Hong Kong with CBD products would not be prosecuted.

Asked if he had any advice for how people can avoid unknowingly buying CBD products overseas and bringing it back to the city, especially when labels indicating that they contain the cannabis compound are unclear, Chan said: “When in doubt, don’t go for it. If you don’t understand what it is, don’t buy it. Don’t take it. It’s not worth it.”

CBD crackdown

CBD is one of over 100 compounds found in the cannabis plant. The literature on its effects has been mixed; some users and businesses boast its ability to alleviate everything from anxiety to sore muscles to eczema, while other attribute any benefits to a placebo effect.

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The Narcotics Division of the Security Bureau consulted representatives from the medical, social welfare and commercial sectors on the proposed ban in June, with a majority supportive of prohibition.

Separately, the government invited “industry stakeholders” to provide “written submissions.” Among those received were suggestions that CBD products be allowed for use by medical professionals, and doubts on the scientific research on which the case for controlling CBD is based, according to a government document.

Hong Kong began cracking down on CBD sellers in 2021, with over 30,000 CBD products suspected of containing THC seized, the Security Bureau told HKFP last July.

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Hillary Leung is a journalist at Hong Kong Free Press, where she reports on local politics and social issues, and assists with editing. Since joining in late 2021, she has covered the Covid-19 pandemic, political court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial, and challenges faced by minority communities.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Hillary completed her undergraduate degree in journalism and sociology at the University of Hong Kong. She worked at TIME Magazine in 2019, where she wrote about Asia and overnight US news before turning her focus to the protests that began that summer. At Coconuts Hong Kong, she covered general news and wrote features, including about a Black Lives Matter march that drew controversy amid the local pro-democracy movement and two sisters who were born to a domestic worker and lived undocumented for 30 years in Hong Kong.