The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) has released a new technical report on the health and social risks associated with Hexahydrocannabinol (HHCs) and related substances. The report sheds light on the increasing prevalence and harmful effects of these substances in Europe.
What is HHC
HHC stands for Hexahydrocannabinol, first discovered by Roger Adams in 1947, and it is a hydrogenated derivative of tetrahydrocannabinol. It is a naturally occurring phytocannabinoid, that has rarely been identified as a trace component in Cannabis sativa. HHC is a minor cannabinoid but naturally, it occurs in amounts too small to make extraction costs effective. HHC can be produced synthetically by the hydrogenation of cannabis extracts which is more cost-effective.
Over the last number of months and years, we have seen a notable increase in the popularity of HHC in Ireland and across Europe. To date, HHC has been identified in 70% of the EU Member States between May and December 2022. It is sold in various forms, such as low-THC cannabis flower and resin sprayed or mixed with HHC, vapes, and edibles. Low-THC cannabis flower and resin containing HHC have a similar look and smell to natural cannabis, which raises concerns that it may be intentionally or accidentally mis-sold as, or used to adulterate, cannabis, THC, and CBD products.
Additionally, two other related substances, HHC acetate and hexahydrocannabiphorol, have been identified in the European drug market since the discovery of HHC. Unlike natural cannabis, the majority of HHC compounds remain unregulated across Europe and are not subject to scheduling under the 1961 and 1971 UN Conventions. It is currently being monitored as a new psychoactive substance (NPS) by the EMCDDA.
According to the report, HHCs and related substances have become a major concern in the European Union due to their highly potent nature and the fact that they are often sold as legal alternatives to cannabis. These substances have been linked to a range of health problems including seizures, respiratory problems, and acute psychosis.
The report also highlights the challenges that law enforcement and public health officials face in addressing the use of HHCs and related substances. The constantly evolving nature of these substances and the lack of regulation make it difficult to monitor their use and develop effective interventions to reduce harm.
The report recommends that European countries take a comprehensive approach to addressing the use of HHCs and related substances. This includes increasing awareness among the public and healthcare professionals, strengthening regulatory frameworks, and investing in research to better understand the health risks associated with these substances.
Is HHC legal in Ireland?
Like many other countries across Europe, HHC is currently in a grey area legally with no guidance from our regulatory bodies on how to classify these products. We have some reports that HHC products are beings seized upon entry to Ireland, illustrating that Revenue & Customs will classify the product as an illegal item. We have no reports of any Garda seizures or court proceedings regarding HHC at the time of writing.
Now for the legal jargon. Some types of HHC have been scheduled as a drug in Ireland. Under the Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act 2010 an attempt was made to prohibit some synthetic cannabinoids. This was mainly targeted at legal highs/spice at the time when there was growing panic across Ireland at the increase of head shops and their products. Although this act does not prosecute personal possession of these substances. It does impose the possibility of a criminal conviction for those selling these substances.
In 2021 there was another legislative attempt to schedule some HHCs as prohibited substances. Under the Misuse of Drugs (Controlled Drugs) (Designation) Order 2021, 3-Dimethylheptyl-11-hydroxyhexahydrocannabinol was listed as a scheduled compound. But as we have seen from history, the law is always one step behind innovation, and this has never been truer than when we discuss synthetic cannabis. To date there are 3 HHC compounds that have yet to be included as a prohibited substances, those are 9-OH-HHC — 9α-hydroxyhexahydrocannabinol, 7-OH-HHC — 7-hydroxyhexahydrocannabinol, and Cannabiripsol — (6aR,9S,10S,10aR)-9,10-dihydroxyhexahydrocannabinol.
I cannot see a future where these substances would be regulated. In both legal and illegal markets, I cannot see any justification for their regulation and acceptance and neither do I want to.
Pros and Cons of HHC
As HHC is similar in chemical structure to THC it can have similar benefits It will produce a similar psychoactive effect as THC, although it is much more difficult to control dosage. HHC could be helpful in managing conditions like chronic pain, insomnia, nausea and vomiting and spasm associated with multiple sclerosis. In terms of side effects and risks, HHC as a synthetic product can have more severe side effects. HHC products are likely to contain higher concentrations of HHC compared to natural cannabis, therefore the higher dosage may produce harsher side effects.
Research is still emerging on HHC and their benefits and risks. As the products are currently unregulated, they may contain other synthetic substances that carry more risk. There are reports of retail providers providing forged or fake certificates of lab analysis which creates an illusion of safety among consumers.
For harm reduction advice please visit www.drugs.ie and see their advice for synthetic cannabis products.