Table of Contents
With its country-by-country rollout of cannabis laws, Europe is developing a remarkably complex regulatory patchwork, eerily similar to the US environment. This similarity is especially noticeable regarding the hemp-derived cannabinoids (sometimes called alt-cannabinoids or semi-synthetic cannabinoids) now flooding consumer markets.
Since the end of 2022, European countries have started to crack down on these novel cannabinoids. From Austria to Sweden, regulators are scrambling to classify semi-synthetics like hexahydrocannabinol (HHC), THC-O-acetate (THC-O), tetrahydrocannabiphorol (THCP), and hydrogenated CBD (H4-CBD) as banned substances.
But just like in the US, European regulators are discovering this approach is futile. Legal cannabis is in demand, and when unavailable, consumers will continue to search “Is HHC legal” and find an unlimited supply of new hemp-derived alternatives.
Is HHC Legal? A Pattern of “Legal” Cannabis Alternatives
Fifteen years ago, consumers dabbled with dangerous cannabis alternatives like Spice and K2. Now it’s HHC and THC-O. In markets where cannabis is illegal, it’s inevitable that consumers will seek alternative ways to get high.
The status of recreational cannabis in Europe may slowly be changing (with Germany at the forefront), but in most countries, cannabis remains frustratingly illegal. And where it is allowed, it is often tightly controlled and available only for medical treatments.
Unlike Spice and K2 (wholly synthetic substances), novel cannabinoids are semi-synthetic, derived from legally cultivated hemp. Manufacturers of these products readily exploit consumers’ nativity about the production process and market these compounds as both legal and naturally derived. But novel cannabinoids are highly lab-manipulated and often with dangerous chemicals. They are only legal by omission.
According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction’s 2022 report (EMCDDA), HHC is of particular concern. It’s been discovered in over 70 percent of European countries since 2022—consumers are gobbling it up.
HHC is sold openly as a ‘legal’ replacement to THC and cannabis in a range of highly attractive branded and unbranded products—some of which are sold as ‘legal highs’. These include hemp sprayed or mixed with HHC—which looks and smells like ‘genuine’ cannabis—as well as vapes and edibles. Marketing and advertising often make direct comparisons to the effects of THC and cannabis.
Growing Concern Among Regional Regulators
Although US legislators have been tackling alternative and novel cannabinoids in the US for years, European regulations have taken hold only within the last year. The recent bans on semi-synthetics have stemmed from the EMCDDA’s EU Early Warning System, which held a meeting on HHC in late 2022. And it’s been a cascade of bans since then.
In February 2023, Estonia was one of the first countries in the European Union to add both HHC to its list of banned psychotropic drugs. Austria quickly followed suit, banning the substance by March. In April, Switzerland, Poland, Sweden, and Bulgaria all pushed through legislation to classify HHC as a banned or otherwise controlled drug.
Now, at least a dozen countries have introduced legislation to put these alternative cannabinoids on banned substance lists. According to reports, other countries are also in the initial stages of legislation, with France and Denmark likely up next.
But banning one compound at a time is like playing a game of whack-a-mole. The Chief Scientific Officer of the US-based cannabis testing facility ProVerde Laboratories told Statnews:
There are new synthetic variants cropping up every week. It is a bit similar to Mr. Potato Head. You have a base potato, to which different attributes can be added: different eyes, glasses, mustaches, arms, legs, hats, etc. … There is almost an unlimited number of permutations or combinations of those attributes that can be applied to your base potato.
The faster regulators crack down on semi-synthetics, the more impetus labs have to develop new derivatives.
Alternative Cannabinoids: Unknown Origins and Unknown Risks
Let’s look at why there is such fear among legislators and health authorities on both sides of the Atlantic about the growing proliferation of novel cannabinoids like THC-O and THCP. If they are produced from hemp, shouldn’t they be as benign as CBD?
The fundamental issue about semi-synthetic cannabinoids is the lack of information. There are zero studies into their effects on humans. In the words of the EMCDDA, “The newness of these cannabis forms and the lack of empirical evidence means that there is considerable uncertainty about the possible impact of these substances on human health.”
Beyond anecdotal trip reports on Reddit and a handful of “How-to” videos on YouTube, these substances’ effects and production techniques remain largely a mystery.
In regard to production specifically, manufacturers don’t have to adhere to any rules about quality, labeling, production, or testing simply because they fall outside the laws. There are already instances of labels misrepresenting contents and hiding semi-synthetics under the guise of natural cannabinoids. This includes a report of HHC popping up in a sleep aid with only CBN on the label (EMCDDA).
What happens when a consumer tries a product with unlisted novel cannabinoids? What happens when they are vaporized? Are they addictive? Are they more potent than THC?
With all these questions swirling around HHC, THC-O, and the many, many, other new cannabinoids, it’s clear why many European countries are in a rush to ban them.
‘Legal’ Alternatives Only a Problem When Cannabis is Illegal
Instead of constantly playing catch up to ban every new cannabinoid produced from a lab, the clear, long-term solution is to legalize recreational cannabis.
These hemp-derived cannabinoids are just another evolution of Spice and K2. Europeans are frantically googling “Is HHC legal” because consumers are seeking relatively mild highs from (supposedly) legal sources. It’s a new rendition of an old pattern.
While legal cannabis will never completely eliminate the underground market for novel drugs, according to this paper for 2022, preliminary data tells us it can reduce the risks. Researchers attributed the decline in synthetic cannabis poisonings to the rise of the legal recreational market.
But, of course, legalizing cannabis is never that easy. Europe continues a prolonged and painful transition to legal cannabis, with only a handful of countries considering full-blown recreational use. Even progress changing the regulation around CBD has been mired in layers of national and regional regulatory bureaucracy.
These are still the early days for European lawmakers, fighting against the rising tide of novel cannabinoids. It remains to be seen whether they will succeed or be persuaded to backpedal, and instead introduce legislation for readily accessible medical and recreational cannabis.