Desperate CBD makers have put a target on their back in Europe as drug authorities this month sent up warning flags over HHC, an unregulated psychoactive compound being sold as an alternative to marijuana.
In a report released April 17, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) said 20 EU Member States have reported the presence of highly-concentrated HHC (hexahydrocannabinol) produced through a “semi-synthetic” process from hemp-derived CBD.
The EMCDDA, the EU’s chief authority on drug issues, said HHC, which was initially noticed in Europe in May 2022, has quickly spread around the continent amid regulatory gaps, bringing risk to consumers’ health.
Threat of backlash
The rise of alternative psychoactive cannabis products made from hemp is a clear sign of the continuing desperation among struggling CBD makers amid a worldwide crash in the market. The more aggressive among them are rushing to meet the demand from HHC producers after seeing margins for extracts and other CBD products all but vaporize over the past three years.
Unfortunately, the HHC phenomenon in Europe advances the misconception that hemp is about drugs, bringing the threat of backlash at a time when European food safety authorities are in the midst of reviewing CBD products for the regulated market after designating the compound a new or “novel” food under EU rules.
“We regret the surge of the HHC products on the EU market and we condemn the operators that are marketing this compound which might cause health issues,” said Daniel Kruse, President of the European Industrial Hemp Association, which has led the charge to normalize CBD across the EU.
Following an EMCDDA meeting held late last year to review HHC’s proliferation across European markets, Luis Soares, Head of Compliance and Regulatory Affairs at Zurich-based Cannavigia, a supply-chain software provider, said the compound represents “one of the biggest problems in the industry and is another example of the industry being its own worst enemy.”
“There has been a lot of effort recently to allow hemp flower to be used for CBD because people say hemp or CBD is not narcotic – there’s no reason to control it,” Soares told the BusinessCann website in January. “But the argument, if we put ourselves in the shoes of the regulators, is that it’s so easy to convert CBD to something which could be psychoactive.”
The European Commission ruled in December 2020 that CBD is not a narcotic and can be classified as a food if it meets relevant provisions in EU food legislation. Hailed as a key advancement for the sector, the ruling also declared that CBD products should enjoy the same free movement of goods between and among member states as other legal products.
That change cleared the way for the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to start reviewing various forms of CBD to approve them for the market under novel food rules. EIHA projects GmbH, a consortium organized by the European association, currently has applications for the approval of two forms of CBD before EFSA.
But Europe’s CBD industry continues to operate on unstable ground. Despite EFSA’s ongoing review, the agency has nonetheless cast a shadow over CBD by concluding last year that research currently available on the compound’s effects on the liver, gastrointestinal tract, endocrine system, nervous system, and on psychological well-being is insufficient.
Meanwhile, raids and shutdowns have hit hemp and CBD shops all over Europe, usually as a result of misunderstanding about CBD by local law and health officials, but nonetheless casting a shadow over the sector.
The situation with highly concentrated HHC in Europe parallels the rise of delta-8 THC in the U.S. Delta-8 is a minor cannabinoid that is also being produced synthetically from CBD in a concentrated, psychoactive form. Worried about consumer safety, U.S. states are now struggling to get delta-8 under control, with some banning it and others putting it under regulations for delta-9 THC, in the absence of any federal rules.
Estimates have shown that at least 75% of CBD being produced in the U.S. is going into delta-8 THC production downstream. While no figures are available for Europe, it’s logical to presume that pent-up hemp flower biomass on the continent is similarly being processed for CBD to go into HHC production. At the same time, imports of the compound from the U.S. have also been reported.
Like delta-8 THC, HHC occurs naturally in industrial hemp, but in minuscule amounts that produce no psychoactive effect. In concentrated forms, the products can mimic the “high” of delta-9 THC, the type most commonly found in marijuana plants.
Unlike delta-8 and delta-9, HHC is not scheduled under the 1961 and 1971 United Nations (UN) drug conventions.
“At present, relatively little is known about the effects and risks of using HHC,” according to the EMCDDA report, which the agency said is a first step in its response to potential public health and social risks. “Since the production of HHC does not necessarily comply with ‘Good Manufacturing Practices,’ contaminations either with extraction residues or synthetic by-products could pose unforeseen risks.
HHC was first found to be on the European market in spring 2022, in a branded product called “CBN Night” that was seized by Danish police, according to the EMCDDA report. Laboratory analysis revealed the product, a tincture sold as a sleep aid, contained HHC as well as CBN (cannabinol), but HHC was not declared on the packaging of the product. The country of manufacture on the labeling was listed as Switzerland, the report said.
Since then, HHC has been found in vapes, e-liquid cartridges, edibles and oils, and some producers are turning out loose-leaf hemp flowers sprayed or mixed with HHC that look and smell like marijuana, according to EMCDDA, which noted that “marketing and advertising often make comparisons to the effects of cannabis (marijuana) and THC.”
EMCDDA said it has received reports of around 50 seizures of products containing HHC since October 2022, when the agency first started monitoring the market. The reports, through the agency’s Early Warning System, accounted for roughly 70 kg and 100 liters of HHC material. “While most of these were small-scale, three large seizures in Italy, Poland and Germany suggest a potentially larger trade,” EMCDDA said.
Italian authorities last August seized just over 33 kilograms of material containing HHC. Polish authorities seized 95 liters of HHC oil that originated from the U.S. last December, and German customs seized 10 kilograms of HHC liquid that were shipped from the Netherlands and en route to Italy in February.
Where to buy HHC
EMCDDA reported that HHC products have been found on the EU market in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden. The products have also been found in non-EU members Norway and Switzerland.
Finnish authorities have already banned the sale of HHC. Estonia has already classified HHC as an illegal drug, and Sweden has started the process of banning the compound.
EMCDDA said it has also identified two additional “semi-synthetic” compounds on the European market – HHC acetate (HHC-O) and hexahydrocannabiphorol (HHC-P).
“These developments may signal the first major new change in the market for ‘legal’ replacements to cannabis (marijuana) since Spice-type products emerged in Europe just over 15 years ago,” EMCDDA said.
Kruse said foot-dragging at the EU has contributed to the rise of the synthetic products. “The reason why we are facing this issue today is because authorities are procrastinating to adopt clear and stable regulations for hemp and its derived products,” he said. “We should not forget that hemp was perfectly marketable from 1997 till 2016, then partially defined as novel food, then as a narcotic and then back as novel food.
“Legal clarity will finally bring transparency and safe products on the market,” said Kruse, noting that production of HHC from industrial hemp, at any rate, is not an economically viable long-term proposition for CBD operators.