Hong Kong, China- Like most people in Hong Kong, Cheryl spent a lot of time in a small apartment when COVID-19 first hit the city in early 2020.
Before long, the 23-year-old media worker was 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 home a lot,” Cheryl, who asked to be called by her first name only, told Al Jazeera.
After learning about cannabidiol (CBD) during a research project in college, Cheryl ordered a tincture from an online store that sells products with touted health benefits, including reducing anxiety and stress.
“I started using CBD tincture,” he said. “My thoughts were like waves crashing over me, but suddenly she 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 legally sold in the form of oils, tinctures, and foods and beverages amid a proliferation of related businesses in recent years.
Cheryl is now a regular user of CBD and spends several hundred Hong Kong dollars every month on products to improve her mood.
However, CBD users like Cheryl may soon be forced to find other outlets for their stress, as the Chinese-ruled city looks to ban the compound this year.
In June, the government of Hong Kong, which is nominally semi-autonomous from mainland China under a system known as “one country, two systems,” introduced a bill to ban the manufacture, import, export, sale, and possession of CBD products. . .
The bill came after Beijing announced a ban on CBD-containing cosmetics last year.
After an electoral reform enacted by Beijing last year effectively eliminated all political opposition in the Hong Kong legislature, there is little chance the bill will not become law.
Hong Kong officials have argued that CBD can break down to THC under “normal storage conditions” and could become a gateway for young people to use illegal drugs.
Authorities also say that more than a third of some 4,000 CBD samples tested contained trace amounts 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 a third between 2020 and 2021, with the number under the age of 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 prison for possession and life in prison for manufacturing and trafficking.
In addition to 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 CBD business ecosystem. city.
After making headlines with its 2020 launch, the city’s first CBD cafe, Found, now plans to close its doors in October.
“Unfortunately, the proposed ban would result in the closure of the retail store and cafe,” Fiachra Mullen, director of marketing for Altum International, which owns Found, told Al Jazeera.
“Altum will focus on our other primary markets of Australia and New Zealand.”
Mullen said the cafe had met strong demand in Hong Kong, with business increasing 20-fold since it opened.
Office worker Morgan first tried CBD when it started to gain popularity in 2020.
“I used to put CBD drops in my drinks. After that, I started using a CBD vaporizer to replace my bad nicotine habits… I felt calm and my anxiety eased,” Morgan, who asked to use only her first name, told Al Jazeera.
Morgan said that while she is no longer a frequent user of CBD, she cannot understand the reason for a ban.
“Why take away something that helps people feel emotionally and mentally better?”
CBD business owners say government claims about their products are off the mark and insist they can guarantee everything they sell is THC-free.
“I send the raw material [of my CBD products] to the UK and Japan for a full 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 relieved his depression and anxiety. He started out selling CBD vape cartridges, but switched to CBD oil and gummies after the government banned vaping products. Before the ban announcement, Lau hoped to open a physical store, but now he is considering moving his business elsewhere.
Mullen, Found’s marketer, said his company could “effectively guarantee a totally THC-free product at the point of production, as there is no cannabis or hemp involved in the production process.”
Although several studies have suggested that CBD can help with mental health conditions like anxiety, experts say more research is needed to examine its effects.
Fung Sai-fu, a professor in the department of behavioral and social sciences at the City University of Hong Kong, said evidence for CBD’s purported benefits is lacking.
“For medical and research use, the current proposed ban on CBD will not affect research related to cannabis compounds and the use of CBD pharmaceuticals. But for consumer or recreational use of cannabidiol, there is no clear scientific evidence to support CBD with its advertised health benefits,” Fung told Al Jazeera.
Fung also said that some studies have shown that CBD users experience side effects, such as trouble sleeping.
“Some medical experts have also warned that CBD can interfere with the way other medicines work and can be contaminated,” he said.
For CBD users like Cheryl, arguments about potential risks or side effects have little validity.
“It’s [the proposed ban] it doesn’t make sense… After we grow up, we should be able to make our own decisions,” he said. “Why are not cigarettes banned, but CBD? If they want to ban CBD, they should also ban cigarettes.”