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New ‘Semi-Synthetic’ THC Alternative HHC Could Encourage Regulatory Crack Down On Hemp Flower

AT the end of 2022 the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) held its first ‘technical expert meeting’ on hexahydrocannabinol, better known as HHC. 

This new substance, said to produce similar effects to THC, has swept through Europe in recent months, and HHC products, including gummies, vapes and even raw flower, are openly sold and readily available online and in high-street stores. 

While little is understood about HHC or the current size of the market, the EMCDDA believe its rapid rise to prevalence, alongside other similar products, ‘may mark the first major new change in the market for “legal” replacements to cannabis since Spice emerged in Europe just over 15 years ago’.

Unlike its purely synthetic counterparts, however, HHC is ‘semi-synthetic’ and can easily be made from readily available CBD and hemp flower, meaning its eventual regulation could have significant implications for how these are controlled across Europe. 

What is HHC?

HHC is a naturally occurring cannabinoid that appears in trace amounts in hemp plants, but it can be ‘semi-synthesised’ by altering THC, CBD or other terpenes chemically. 

Little scientific research has been conducted into its psychoactive effects, or its safety, but anecdotal evidence suggests it produces a milder but comparable ‘high’ to that of THC. 

Similarly, little market research has been conducted into this relatively new compound, but the EMCDDA says it has been tracked as a ‘new psychoactive compound’ (NPS) by its EU Early Warning System since October 21, 2022.

In a summary of its recent meeting, which brought together experts and law enforcement from across the EU to exchange information on HHC, the EMCDDA said: “As of 15 December 2022, within a short period of time, HHC has been identified in at least 13 EU Member States. In addition, informal reports from Member States and initial results from internet monitoring of the surface web suggests that HHC’s availability and use in Europe might be much greater than suggested by seizures reported to the EMCDDA.”

For some idea about the potential size of the HHC market, we can look at Delta-8, a similarly hemp-derived analogue of THC, which has risen to prominence as a ‘legal high’ in tandem with HHC. 

According to a recent report from Brightfield Group, 35% of CBD users in the US have purchased psychoactive hemp-derived products over the last six months, resulting in estimated sales of over US$2bn over the last two years. 

The EMCDDA believes there ‘could be a large demand for HHC products by individuals in Europe’, including from ‘existing cannabis users and new consumers attracted to its effects and legal status’. 

According to Brightfield’s research, in US states where cannabis is legal nearly a quarter of cannabis users expressed interest in purchasing Delta-8 products in future, in part thanks to favourable prices compared with high-THC products. 

Its impact

One of the key topics at the EMCDDA’s initial meeting was the 2018 US Farm Bill, which saw the federal legalisation of hemp cultivation with THC content below 0.3% and spurned the rise of these new semi-synthetic products across the country.  

Cannavigia’s Head of Compliance and Regulatory Affairs, Luis Soares, told BusinessCann that he believes HHC is ‘one of the biggest problems in the industry and is another example of the industry being its own worst enemy.’ 

As the EMCDDA points out: “Unlike synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists found in Spice-type products, HHC can be made from cannabidiol extracted from low-THC cannabis (hemp).” 

This puts progress made in countries such as France, which recently overturned a law attempting to ban the sale of hemp and CBD flower, under threat of being walked back by regulators. 

“It is just giving reasons for worldwide or European regulators to say that the cultivation of cannabis sativa for fibre should now allow the use of flowers.

“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. 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.”

He added that it is ‘very easy chemically to convert one to the other’, comparing it to the ‘epidemic of pseudoephedrine’, or Sudafed, an over-the-counter cold medicine that is commonly used to produce methamphetamine. 

According to a number of studies, CBD can be converted to HHC and other psychoactive compounds by using acid. In the 2007 study by Watanabe, K. et al., CBD was found to be converted to HHC in artificial gastric juice. 

A number of articles and even YouTube tutorials are also readily available giving would-be chemists guides on how to produce HHC and Delta-8 at home. 

Mr Soares continued: “I think it will trigger a backlash, where authorities can say ‘See, I told you there were reasons to forbid the use of CBD flower.”

While progress has begun in the US to regulate these new semi-synthetic compounds, described as the ‘bathtub gin of the cannabis space’ by one senator, no such moves are yet underway on this side of the Atlantic. 

Despite this, Mr Soares believes HHC will ‘most surely’ be added to the EU’s list of banned substances over the coming months. 

While the EMCDDA told BusinessCann it could not comment on the potential regulation of HHC, it said it will ‘continue to closely monitor this rapidly developing market in order to strengthen preparedness and response at national and EU level’.

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