A new hemp-based high is on the rise in Europe, but is it safe?
Intoxicating hemp-derived cannabinoids (IHDCs), a new type of psychoactive cannabis product, is popping up on the CBD market. Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash
Demand for intoxicating hemp-derived cannabinoids (IHDCs) – which give users a legal ‘high’ – is now rising across Europe and the UK, but a lack of research and regulation could put consumers at risk.
CBD could be considered the calming, non-psychoactive cousin of delta-9 THC, the main compound in cannabis that is associated with ‘getting high’. But intoxicating hemp-derived cannabinoids (IHDCs), a new type of psychoactive cannabis product, is popping up on the CBD market across Europe and in the UK, and has already caused a competitive stir in US states that have legalised cannabis.
What are IHDCs?
IHDCs, including hexahydrocannabinol (HHC) and delta-8 THC, are psychoactive compounds derived from the cannabis sativa plant. They occur naturally, but can also be synthesised, with many being converted from CBD. They are often consumed in vape liquid form or as an edible.
According to Ana Liz Molina, a market analyst with Can Intelligence, anecdotal evidence suggests that IHDC’s can cause similar mental and physical effects to delta-9 THC, but studies examining the true impacts of IHDCs are scarce.
Despite their psychoactive properties, IHDC’s sit in a legal loophole because they are extracted from hemp which is generally legal to grow (within certain restrictions) in the UK and Europe.
IHDCs in the US: a multi-million dollar market
Molina points to some surprising statistics: the market value of IHDCs in the US is already around US$400m.
“IHDCs, particularly delta-8 THC, are more prevalent in the US, but we’re starting to see it in Europe, and it’s a very [legal] grey area,” she says.
“There’s not much information about it and no one is sure how to regulate it.”
Before recreational cannabis became legal in a number of US states (21 and counting), the 2018 Farm Bill allowed the (regulated) production of hemp across the country, enabling experimentation with IHDCs.
This is when the IHDC market began to explode. Consumers in the US can now find IHDC products in supermarkets or gas stations in many states. Recent research conducted by Can Intelligence shows that a quarter of people surveyed in the US who use CBD products have also used IHDCs.
Some 23 states, however, are looking to (or have already) banned the sale of IHDCs due to lack of credible research on their effects. Cannabis dispensaries and investors in legal cannabis are also speaking out against IHDCs.
As Molina says: “Why would you go to a dispensary when you can get something that is easily accessible elsewhere and that can give you similar effects to delta-9? It’s a direct competitor of dispensaries, and investors are the ones who are getting mad about this.”
The rise of IHDCs in Europe
In Europe, IHDC products—mainly featuring HHC—have been found in Austria, Czech Republic, France, Greece, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and the UK, and generally show up in more ‘niche’ places like smoke shops and head shops.
But IHDC products can easily be bought online. According to the same Can Intelligence study, the average number of visits to online stores selling IHDC products reached around 300,000 per website over a three-month period.
“These products are selling fast,” says Molina.
“IHDCs are very prevalent in vape stores now, in a study conducted in US offline vape stores 70% had them and 30% of their revenue came from them.”
Despite this, HHC and other IHDCs are currently in a ‘legal limbo’ in Europe with no guidance from regulatory institutions on how to deal with these products. Given the lack of research around IHDCs, the potential for harm is unknown. “
Some companies are trying to do more research,” Molina adds. “But clearly we don’t have anything. Not even the consumers are demanding it that much.”
An alternative option for cannabis consumers and CBD companies?
According to consumers, the effects of IHDCs on the brain and body can vary, but generally fall in the middle between those of delta-9 and CBD.
“[Based on consumer feedback] Delta-8 is a bit more stronger [than CBD], but it doesn’t get you as high as delta-9,” says Molina.
“HHC is the same, but you also have other cannabinoids interacting with HHC and it can be very intoxicating and result in stronger effects than delta-9.”
Hence the need for more research.
Molina believes, with appropriate examination and regulation, IHDCs could fill a market gap for consumers who might not get enough from CBD, but who don’t like the strong psychoactive elements of delta-9.
“For consumers, having more options is good,” she says, and advises those who want to purchase IHDCs to explore products from established brands who are already trusted and experienced in the CBD market.
“CBD is a very fragmented industry,” she adds.
“I think that they will try everything that they haven’t already. So most of the CBD brands will start getting into IHDCs and adding them into their portfolio, for sure.”
As more CBD oil companies expand into IHDCs, and if consumer demand continues to rise, so too will the pressure on regulators and researchers to consider IHDCs more seriously. Ultimately, given their popularity, more clarity is needed on the safety of these products.