HHC is the most popular intoxicating hemp-derived cannabinoid (IHDC) in Europe, while delta-8 THC remains top in the US, according to CannIntelligence analysts.
Vaping devices are currently the most popular HHC product in the EU, while gummies are the most popular delta-8 product in the US, CannIntelligence market analyst Ana Liz Molina (pictured with CannIntelligence managing director Tim Phillips) told an audience of industry insiders at CannIntelligence’s Cannabis and Coffee event in Barcelona on 10th March.
The European IHDC market is expected to continue to grow. Currently CannIntelligence conservatively estimates the IHDC market in the US to be worth $400m, said Molina. In Europe, CannIntelligence has already found 624 online retailers selling IHDCs, with major hubs in Switzerland, Belgium, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. These companies, and many in the US too, are largely willing to ship anywhere in Europe, effectively making IHDCs easily accessible across the continent – though they make no guarantees about customs seizures.
Interestingly, despite the name, it appears most users are not interested in IHDCs for intoxication. A survey of US consumers found the most common reasons given for taking IHDCs were to relax or as a treatment for anxiety, stress or insomnia.
In fact the only recreational answer (“to have fun”) that appeared towards the top of the list came in seventh. This suggests IHDC use may be more closely related to that of CBD and medical cannabis than recreational cannabis.
But regulators take a dim view of intoxicating cannabinoids, and the tallest poppy often gets cut first. European regulators are already starting to specifically look at HHC, according to CannIntelligence head of regulatory analysis Anthony Traurig.
He said CannIntelligence had identified five countries where laws would seem to permit HHC vaping products to be sold. However, Lithuania recently explicitly added HHC to its list of banned substances, while Estonia has notified the European Commission of a bill to do so.
This leaves only the Czech Republic, Belgium and Greece as EU countries where HHC products should not run counter to any law. It may also continue to operate in a grey zone in other markets.
And regulating HHC comes with its own perils. Traurig likened efforts to ban specific cannabinoids to a game of whack-a-mole. As soon as regulators come down on one, enterprising companies pop up selling a different variation meant to have similar effects.
Broadening out regulations can be equally dangerous – as demonstrated by examples from US state regulators.
For instance, Kentucky took the approach of attempting to specifically outlaw delta-8 THC. But it failed in court due to it adopting the same broad definition of legal hemp, which included all extracts, cannabinoids, isomers, acids, salts and salts of isomers outside of delta-9 THC – which itself was permitted as long as under 0.3%.
A similar fate may await regulators in Europe attempting to curtail HHC as hemp and its derived cannabinoids enjoy a similarly broad definition.
Other approaches have also been tried, Traurig said. Some states have attempted to include all THC isomers, not just delta-9, in calculations of the 0.3% limit. But this definition would not cover HHC, a completely different molecule, and entrepreneurs continue to sell larger gummies and other products in which THC makes up only 0.3% of the product mass.
Still others have attempted to prohibit semi-synthetic cannabinoids to knock out any intoxicating cannabinoids derived through further processing. But this broad definition takes in a range of minor cannabinoids that while naturally present in the hemp plant occur in amounts too small to be viably extracted commercially.
Fortunately for those interested in IHDCs in Europe, not all jurisdictions are looking to regulate them by simple prohibition.
In the Czech Republic, national anti-drug coordinator Jindřich Vobořil has said: “HHC is a synthetic substance that is in a grey area for now. I don’t see a reason to necessarily ban it, but it needs to be strictly regulated, just like cannabis. If it is intended for smoking, then its sale to minors should definitely be prohibited.”
This leaves IHDCs to continue to find their place in the European market. Will they act in lieu of recreational cannabis in jurisdictions where that is not legalised in the near future? Or will they follow the same route as they appear to have in America and be considered primarily as an alternative to CBD or medical cannabis products?
– Freddie Dawson CannIntelligence staff