When the United Nations removed cannabis from its list of the most dangerous substances in late 2020, it was reflecting the gradual, global decriminalization of the drug. Today, cannabis is legal in most of North America, and possession is no longer a criminal offence in many parts of South America and Europe.
Asia remains an outlier in this regard, but even here there has been some movement toward relaxing drug laws: Thailand legalized cannabis last year under a confusing set of rules designed to foster a domestic marijuana industry but avoid seeing the country become an Asian Amsterdam.
Next week, Hong Kong will take a step in completely the opposite direction. Starting Feb. 1, the possession and sale of cannabidiol, or CBD, “will be under the same strict control as other dangerous drugs,” the city’s Customs Department warned in a statement Friday.
That means anyone found in possession of CBD gummies or oil could be jailed for up to seven years and face a maximum fine of HK$1-million ($170,000). Anyone found guilty of trafficking or manufacturing CBD could face life imprisonment.
CBD is an ingredient found in cannabis that is thought to have pain- and stress-relieving benefits. Unlike its sister component, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), it does not provide any form of high. Recent years have seen a boom of health food and supplement companies hawking CBD products to help with sleep or anxiety. Countless shops have popped up selling CBD-infused smoothies or food, including in Hong Kong.
In a briefing paper for legislators last year, Hong Kong’s Security Bureau said CBD products “have been gaining popularity,” pointing out, though, that “CBD, in its pure form, is not psychoactive and is not associated with abuse potential.”
However, the bureau said CBD products can contain trace amounts of THC or at least amounts “below the detection limits of various analytical methods.” It added that CBD could naturally or intentionally be converted into THC through various methods and recommended its criminalization, while noting that “most countries allow it to be traded and consumed.”
Because of the way Hong Kong’s one-size-fits-all drug laws work, CBD will now be scheduled as equivalent to the 200 or so other substances – including heroin, cocaine and fentanyl – on the city’s Dangerous Drugs Ordinance.
For weeks now, the authorities have been running a public information campaign urging people to surrender their CBD products at designated points, lest they be caught out by the upcoming law change. In its statement Friday, the Customs Department said it would “step up enforcement action to intercept the import and transit movements of CBD products in various channels.”
The department urged people not to buy CBD products overseas and risk inadvertently bringing them back to the city. Already, hundreds of drug mules, many of them duped or forced by criminal gangs into transporting banned substances, are serving long terms in Hong Kong’s prisons.
In response to an earlier query from The Globe and Mail, the Customs Department said it seized HK$2.5-billion worth of drugs last year and arrested 218 people, 18 more than the previous year but still far fewer than the 300 to 400 arrested in the years before pandemic travel controls were introduced.
“The department will continue its intelligence-led and risk-management approach to smash the sources of drug supply to Hong Kong or to other places via the city,” Customs said in a statement.