Move over, CBD: HHC is the new ‘legal cannabis’ these European countries want to ban

After the boom of CBD, authorities worry about HHC, which can be ingested, smoked or vaped, with effects similar to those of cannabis.

It may be the next big thing after the CBD wave and its controversies: HHC, also known as “synthetic cannabis”.

HHC sellers tout the euphoric sensations and mental and physical relaxation it brings. But health professionals worry it could get people hooked, and say it should be regulated.

What is HHC?

HHC stands for hexahydrocannabinol,a semi-synthetic molecule. That means it needs to be made in a laboratory, where the THC extracted from the hemp plant (Cannabis sativa) is combined with hydrogen molecules.

It’s unsurprising, then, that the effects are similar to those of THC, the psychoactive molecule of cannabis.

In the form of dried flowers, oils, resins or vaping liquids, HHC products can be ingested, smoked or inhaled and have lately been in increasing demand.

HHC emerged in late 2021 in the United States and then became popular in Europe in 2022, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).

The complex process required to produce it could explain why it has emerged so recently, while natural cannabis has been widely consumed.

Experts say it also likely owes a lot to the boom of CBD products. To be commercialised, CBD must contain a level of THC below 0.2 per cent in the UK and Ireland, and 0.3 per cent in the US and France. While this can be the case naturally, it’s commonly done in a laboratory, helping the emergence of other synthetic cannabinoids such as HHC.

“Synthetic drugs always have much greater clinical effects in humans than the molecule itself,” explained Joëlle Micallef, a pharmacology professor, on national French radio.

Does HHC make you high? How is it different from CBD?

Following the boom in popularity of CBD, HHC flooded the market with vaping products and edibles targeting younger consumers.

However, this recent widespread consumption means that the health impact of HHC are little known, with very limited scientific studies.

Moreover, “contaminations either with extraction residues or synthetic by-products could pose unforeseen risks,” Rachel Christie, of the EMCDDA, told Euronews Next.

“Traces of heavy metals originating from the catalyst used for the hydrogenation might also be present”, she added. The organisation issued a report last month warning about the risks posed by HHC.

HHC’s effects are described as being very close to those of THC, including sensations of euphoria and relaxation. As a cannabinoid, HHC also influences bodily functions such as sleep and appetite – the “munchies” commonly used to describe the cravings for high-calorie foods after consuming cannabis.

Despite the lack of extensive scientific literature about HHC, early data suggests “it may have abuse liability and dependence potential in humans”, Christie said when asked about the risk of addiction.

That, she explains, is the main difference between HHC and CBD. The extremely low rate of THC in CBD products indeed prevents psychotropic effects. On the other hand, HHC products are reported to have some of the negative side effects to those of THC, including anxiety, memory loss and difficulty with coordination.

Which countries have banned HHC?

HHC is not technically legal, but sellers are taking advantage of a grey area in the law.

International anti-drug conventions are facing the same problem. Because the drug appeared on the market so recently, it doesn’t appear on the listed category of cannabinoids. “HHC is not scheduled under the 1961 and 1971 UN Conventions,” explained Christie.

As a result, it is very common to find HHC marketed as a “legal” THC, a “legal” spliff, and so on.

However, several countries have taken measures to prohibit it, such as Estonia, which was the first EU country to issue a bill to include HHC in its list of banned psychotropic drugs, according to a specialised media outlet.

Other countries such as Switzerland or Finland have taken similar measures. These countries are highlighted in red on the map below.

The French Minister of Health, François Braun, said it would be “a matter of weeks” before HHC-based products become illegal. In Denmark and Czechia, a legal process to ban the substance is also ongoing. These countries are highlighted in orange on the map.

In the countries in yellow, no legal actions have yet been taken but the EMCDDA has noted the presence of HHC on the market.

However, Internet data suggests the use of HHC is likely to be “much greater than suggested by seizures reported so far,” said Christie.

Why have shops started selling HHC?

The number of CBD shops in France increased from 400 to 1,800 in just one year, boosted by marketing campaigns promoting it as a miracle solution for sleep troubles, anxiety and pain.

The now highly competitive market is expected to reach €3.2 billion by 2025.

In that context, HHC has presented a new business opportunity, with prices between €6 and €10 per gram of flower, higher than for CBD-based products.

Lastly, HHC took advantage of online orders and is widely sold on the Internet, largely bypassing the legal framework in place.

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