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Europe Tightens the Net Around HHC

By Ricardo Geada

Published: Jul 11, 2023   
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Several weeks ago, France became the latest country to ban the use of the synthetic cannabis compound hexahyrdocannabinol (HHC). Operators in the cannabis market are coming under increased regulatory pressure with regard to their products. France’s legislative action makes it the 11th European state to either ban or regulate the new substance, which can be synthesised from CBD extracted from low-THC cannabis plants and is reported to have similar psychoactive effects as marijuana’s THC.

HHC’s swift rise to prominence has created an abundance of issues for the CBD market, with little research having so far been carried out with regard to its potential health risks and psychoactive effects. As such, a growing number of jurisdictions have erred on the side of caution and moved to either limit or ban the use of HHC until more is known about its properties and effects. CBD operators have found themselves the subject of raids to seize their HHC products, impairing them financially as well as exposing them to the risk of legislators’ sanctions for their actions.

As the regulatory net tightens around the world, CBD producers and distributors are being sent a strong signal that operating in the previously grey area of HHC is rapidly becoming a greater risk. For the time being, they may be better placed pausing production of new and synthetic cannabidiol products until the rules and laws governing its use becomes clearer, especially given the strength of the political drive to curtail its consumption.

French MEP Aurelia Beigneux told the European Commission earlier last month that HHC was “flooding our continent”, questioning whether the Commission planned to ban the substance across all member states as a way to end the “legal limbo” from which it currently benefited. She noted what she claimed were HHC’s many adverse effects, including its causing of anxiety, depression and damage to the neurological and cardiovascular systems. While the extremely low level of THC in HHC means that it does not have the same deleterious psychotropic effects as cannabis, many politicians have called for it to be added to the EC’s list of addictive substances due to the volume of reports of users’ addiction to the drug.

Opponents of a full ban of HHC point to the fact that the simplicity of its synthesising from CBD means that illicit market production would soar in the event of prohibition, leading to associated health risks for consumers, as wholly unregulated and unmonitored products are distributed by unscrupulous dealers. However, there appears to be a general consensus that, even if an outright ban is not appropriate or viable, there must still be a strong set of rules heavily limiting the production and sale of HHC in the near future.

Such vehement opposition to HHC has been replicated across the continent, indicating that the crackdown on the substance will continue to gather pace in the coming months. Regulators are clearly concerned about the ease with which CBD can be synthesised into HHC and other new variants, none of which yet appear in the listed category of cannabinoids in many countries due to their novelty.

As a result, many current regulatory frameworks do not govern the use of HHC in the way that CBD and cannabis are regulated, which has led many producers to take advantage of the vacuum in the meantime. However, the push for thorough testing of HHC will likely see the loophole closed in increasing numbers of jurisdictions in the short to medium term, giving pause for thought to any operator considering remaining in the HHC marketplace.

The fact that France has opted to ban HHC is also noteworthy against the backdrop of its previous stance towards CBD. At the end of December 2022, the French Council of State overturned a ban on the sale of CBD flowers in the country, stating that a general and absolute ban on the marketing of the product was “disproportionate”, on the basis that the THC content of the dried flowers was less than 0.3%. The CBD industry welcomed the move, seeing it as a positive sign of increased acceptance of their products. But France’s latest legislative change appears to have dashed operators’ hopes once again.

Given the febrile political climate, rigorous testing of HHC and its variants is guaranteed to be carried out by regulators and medical experts around the world. CBD operators should welcome such a move so that they are afforded clarity as to what they can and cannot produce, but more importantly understand whether such variants pose any health risks to consumers, rather than take the various risks of continuing to operate outside of regulatory boundaries on the proviso that HHC and other related substances are not yet effectively defined in law. In doing so, the cannabis and CBD industry would be better regarded on the world stage.

Ricardo Geada

Director and head of the regulatory solutions department at London law firm Lawrence Stephens

Ricardo is a director and head of the regulatory solutions department at London law firm Lawrence Stephens. Ricardo has over 16 years’ legal experience (in private practice and in-house) in dispute resolution, with a particular focus on regulatory and compliance when it comes to cannabis-related businesses. He is regularly instructed by global cannabis companies in the CBD wellness markets and medicinal cannabis sector.


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