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CBD products have become popular in recent years among Hong Kongers seeking relief from anxiety, depression and stress. Learn the basics of CBD and get started with products available in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s CBD industry faces wipeout as government ban looms

Hong Kong, China – Like most people in Hong Kong, Cheryl found herself spending a lot of time in a tiny apartment when COVID-19 first struck the city in early 2020.

Before long, the 23-year-old media worker felt overwhelmed with anxiety and depression.

“I didn’t have in-person classes at the time, and it was easy to have anxious thoughts when you stayed at home a lot,” Cheryl, who asked to be referred to by her first name only, told Al Jazeera.

After learning about cannabidiol (CBD) during a research project at university, Cheryl ordered a tincture at an online store that sells products with touted health benefits including reduced anxiety and stress.

“I started using CBD tincture,” she said. “My thoughts were like waves crashing over me, but it suddenly calmed down.”

CBD is a compound found in cannabis that does not contain THC, the psychoactive ingredient responsible for the drug’s high.

In Hong Kong, CBD has been sold legally in the form of oils, tinctures, and food and drinks amid a mushrooming of related businesses in recent years.

Cheryl is now a regular user of CBD, spending several hundred Hong Kong dollars each month on products to improve her mood.

CBD users like Cheryl, however, may soon be forced to find other outlets for their stress as the Chinese-ruled city looks to ban the compound as early as this year.

CBD is sold legally in Hong Kong in the form of oils, tinctures, and food and drinks [Courtesy of Altum International]

In June, the Hong Kong government, which is nominally semi-autonomous from mainland China under a system known as “one country, two systems”, unveiled a draft bill to ban the manufacturing, import, export, sale, and possession of CBD products.

The bill came after Beijing last year announced a ban on cosmetics containing CBD.

After a Beijing-decreed electoral overhaul last year effectively wiped out all political opposition in Hong Kong’s legislature, there is little chance of the bill not becoming law.

Hong Kong officials have argued that CBD can decompose into THC under “normal storage conditions” and could become a gateway for young people to take illegal drugs.

Authorities also say that more than one-third of some 4,000 CBD samples tested contained traces of THC.

Meanwhile, officials say illegal drug use is becoming more prevalent in the city.

The number of known cannabis abusers in Hong Kong grew by one-third between 2020 and 2021, with the number of those aged below 21 rising by nearly 50 percent, according to police statistics.

Hong Kong has strict anti-drug laws, with penalties of up to seven years in jail for possession and life imprisonment for manufacturing and trafficking.

Business wipeout

Besides putting consumers on notice, Hong Kong’s proposed ban, which would give anyone in possession of CBD three months to dispose of the product, has sounded the death knell for the city’s once-thriving ecosystem of CBD businesses.

After making headlines with its launch in 2020, the city’s first CBD café, Found, now plans to shut up shop in October.

“The proposed ban would unfortunately result in the retail store and café closing,” Fiachra Mullen, chief marketing officer for Altum International, Found’s owner, told Al Jazeera.

“Altum will be focusing on our other primary markets of Australia and New Zealand.”

Mullen said the cafe had catered to a vigorous demand in Hong Kong, with business growing about 20-fold since its opening.

Office worker Morgan first tried CBD as it began to take off in popularity in 2020.

“I used to put CBD drops in my drinks. After that, I started using a CBD vape to replace my poor nicotine habits … I felt calm, and my anxiety was relieved,” Morgan, who asked to use only her first name, told Al Jazeera.

Morgan said while she is no longer a frequent CBD user, she cannot understand the rationale for a ban.

“Why take away something that helps people feel emotionally and mentally better?”

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CBD business owners say the government’s claims about their products are off the mark, and insist that they can guarantee that anything they sell is THC-free.

“I send the raw materials [of my CBD products] to the UK and Japan for a whole check, and my products are 100 percent THC-free,” David Lau, an online seller of CBD products, told Al Jazeera.

Lau started his business after his friend reported that CBD had eased his depression and anxiety. He began selling CBD vaping cartridges, but switched to CBD oil and gummies after the government banned vaping products. Before the announcement of the ban, Lau had been hoping to open a physical store, but is now considering moving his business somewhere else.

Mullen, the marketer for Found, said his company could “effectively guarantee a fully THC-free product at the point of production as there is no cannabis or hemp involved in the production process”.

Experts say more research is needed to examine the effects of CBD products [Courtesy of Altum International]

Although several studies suggested CBD may help with mental health conditions such as anxiety, experts say more research is needed to examine its effects.

Fung Sai-fu, an instructor at the department of social and behavioural sciences at the City University of Hong Kong, said evidence is lacking for CBD’s supposed benefits.

“For research and medical use, the current proposed CBD ban will not affect the research related to cannabis compounds and the use of CBD pharmaceutical products. But for the consumer or recreational cannabidiol use, there is no clear scientific evidence to support CBD with those advertised health benefits,” Fung told Al Jazeera.

Fung also said some studies have shown CBD users experiencing side effects, such as sleep problems.

“Some medical experts also warned that CBD may interfere with the functioning of other medications and may be contaminated,” he said.

For CBD users like Cheryl, arguments about potential risks or side effects hold little water.

“It [the proposed ban] doesn’t make sense… After we grow up we should be able to make our own decisions,” she said. “Why aren’t cigarettes banned, but CBD? If they want to ban CBD, they should also ban cigarettes.”

The ultimate guide to CBD in Hong Kong

CBD products are now easily accessible in Hong Kong, be it online, in stores, or as added ingredients in food and drinks in cafes , restaurants , and bars . With the increase in product availability, it seems like the CBD movement has made enormous strides forward in the city.

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“People in Hong Kong, as well as mainland China, have not lost their connection to plant and herbal remedies for overall health and wellbeing like we have stateside and to an extent in Europe,” explains Jamie Leilani Pelayo, co-founder of Natureofthings, a wellness platform from the US that offers an array of CBD luxe bath products and bodycare. “I think Hong Kong consumers are very savvy and knowledgeable on using natural remedies to take care of themselves,” she adds.

At first, products available in the market – may it be digestible or topical – are mostly used for anxiety, sleep disorders, and chronic pains. “When Saint Jane launched in January 2019, there were not many luxury CBD brands on the market, especially ones that focused on skincare,” says Casey Georgeson, CEO and founder of Saint Jane, a luxury beauty brand offering CBD-infused skincare products. “The market at the time was dominated by edibles, tinctures, and products targeted for muscle and pain relief. That lack of beauty-focused products is why I created Saint Jane,” she adds. T oday beauty industry retailers are embracing the anti-ageing and antioxidant properties of CBD, and are releasing more skincare products into the market.

With so many available options, it can get overwhelming with which product to use, and how to even get started. So, let’s break down the basics.

RECOMMENDED: If you’re looking for skincare products without all the extra fuss, check out this list of the best homegrown skincare brands in Hong Kong .

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An introduction to CBD and products available in Hong Kong

What is CBD?

CBD stands for cannabidiol, an active ingredient in cannabis derived from the hemp plant. Hemp is often confused with marijuana hence the stigma surrounding CBD. Though coming from the same family, these two plants are very different. “CBD is considered non-intoxicating, so individuals will not get high when consuming it,” explains Fiachra Mullen, marketing director of Altum International, a cannabinoid innovation platform that distributes various CBD products for the retail, food, and beverage industry. Hemp plants don’t produce enough tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to have an intoxicating effect, unlike its cousin marijuana, so CBD derived from hemp is not psychoactive.

How does it work, and how does our body benefit from the use of CBD?

“The benefits of cannabidiol are numerous and vary person to person,” says Mullen (Altum). “CBD helps moderate the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which is the system responsible for regulating mood, appetite, stress, sleep, motor control, immune function, and more. CBD helps balance some of the imbalances in our ECS. In other words, CBD helps balance the system that balances us,” he adds.

The human body naturally produces its own endocannabinoids to support this system, but just like any other nutrient, it can sometimes cause deficiencies, and that’s when CBD comes in for support. “Everyone is familiar with the effects of caffeine on their body,” says Mullen. “Unfortunately, the caffeine experience usually ends with an ‘energy crash’ and sometimes an uncomfortable feeling of agitation if taken in high quantity.” He then explains that CBD can help balance some of these adverse effects and even prolong the positive ones. “As it promotes homeostasis in the body, CBD helps even out any increased agitation or nerves from caffeine consumption. It also lessens the suddenness of the ‘energy crash’, allowing the individual to come gently back down to regular energy levels – usually in time for evening relaxation or before bed,” he explains.

People often take CBD to help with anxiety, pain, depression, and sleep. But, there’s a much wider use for it on our skin. CBD helps improve skin hydration and reduce inflammation, which helps treat skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and acne. And because of its antioxidant properties, it helps in managing ageing and dry skin.

Are there any side effects? And can CBD make you fail a drug test?

CBD is considered non-intoxicating, so individuals will not get high when consuming it. “CBD products generally do not cause side effects, but we do advise that anyone already taking significant medication to consult their physician before adding CBD to their daily routine,” explains Mullen. “CBD is unlikely to cause someone to fail a drug test (World Anti-Doping Agency, WADA, have announced that CBD is not a banned substance for professional athletes), but we do recommend that individuals who are required to take drug tests – for work or other reasons – clarify whether CBD is considered a banned substance for their particular situations,” he says.

In Hong Kong, pure cannabidiol (CBD) is legal and is not classified as a dangerous drug provided the company importing and distributing the products are licensed to do so. THC and its derivatives are prohibited in Hong Kong, so CBD products coming from proper channels in the city contain no traces of THC. “Hemp has been used as a wellness tool for thousands of years, and its safety has been validated by numerous scientific studies,” explains Melany Dobson, founder of Treaty, a premiere CBD company from the US whose edible products are currently being sold at Joyce Beauty in Hong Kong. “We encourage the person to ask questions and educate themselves about CBD; there is a lot of confusion and misconception, and it helps to be informed!” explains Dobson. “Most drug test companies only test for the THC cannabinoid, which is the psychoactive compound in marijuana plants. You can contact the lab to verify what you will be tested for,” she adds.

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How to choose the right CBD products

The type of CBD product you choose should come down to what exactly you need to get out of the product. But before deciding, know that not all CBD are created equal. When reading each product description, look out for the following terms: full spectrum , broad spectrum , and isolate . To make it easier to understand let’s compare it to a burger, do you want a regular burger with just meat? Or do you want it with cheese and all the other fillings? The same goes for full spectrum, broad spectrum, and isolate.

Full spectrum – refers to CBD extracts that contain all naturally occurring compounds found in cannabis plants, including terpenes (what gives marijuana its unique smell), flavonoids, and other cannabinoids. In other words, full spectrum has it all, which includes THC. Sometimes referred to as ‘whole plant CBD’, full spectrum CBD oils or tinctures processed from hemp never exceed 0.3 percent THC so it cannot make a person high. Some skincare products label their ingredients as full spectrum if the whole plant is used for the CBD extraction, but if there are zero traces of THC this falls under the broad spectrum.

Broad spectrum – refers to CBD extracts almost the same in full spectrum CBD, except that THC is removed after the compounds have been extracted from the plant.

Isolate – refers to CBD extracts that only contain CBD. They don’t contain terpenes, flavonoids, or any other cannabinoids.

CBD comes in many forms – If you’re ok with the taste of liquid drops under your tongue, then high-grade oil or tincture products are suitable for your consumption. If you want to skip the vegetal and earthy taste, you can opt for pills, capsules, gummies, and food-infused products like chocolates, cookies, and other treats.

Topical and digestible CBD products

“For customers who are buying CBD for the first time, we recommend starting with a CBD tincture. It is the classic type of CBD product and one of the most straightforward to use,” says Mullen (Altum). “One simply uses the dropper to place some CBD oil under their tongue, leave it there for 30 to 45 seconds (to allow absorption) and then swallow the rest of the oil,” he adds.

“We recommend titrating your dose,” Dobson (Treaty) shares. “Start low and go slow. Titration is the process of determining the medicinal dose that reduces symptoms to the greatest possible degree. Titrating requires consistently and slowly increasing the daily dose you take. This practice helps to develop mindfulness and strengthens the relationship one has to our health,” she adds.

For topical applications, products with CBD include serums, lotions, creams, balms, or body wash. Choosing depends on what you expect from the product but always opt for high-quality products from reputable manufacturers. As with any skincare products, avoid harmful ingredients, and opt for ones that are free of pesticides, and heavy metals.

“For CBD, it is important that it is clean and thoroughly tested,” says Georgeson (Saint Jane). “The hemp plant, where CBD is extracted from, is a bio-accumulator – which means that it soaks up all the toxins and other harmful chemicals that are often present in the soil. It’s essential to use CBD that has been grown with meticulously clean standards from seed to bottle,” she explains. “Saint Jane is a clean beauty brand, that means that all of our products and ingredients are 100 percent free of toxins, harmful ingredients, and pollutants,” she explains. “We sustainably source our materials and test our formulas for integrity and efficacy. To ensure the highest quality, we publish all of the third party lab tests with complete transparency.”

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