If you’re unfamiliar with HHC, don’t sweat. It’s a relatively new substance, with not a huge amount of information readily available online. And yet TikTok is full of clips with titles such as “what happens when you try HHC?”, while HHC vapes are available in the same online shops selling the more widely-known CBD pens.
HHC, a semi-synthetic cannabinoid, is found in trace amounts in the cannabis plant. Commercial HHC is often extracted from hemp-derived CBD in a lab through chemical processes. It is then added to a range of products which, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), can include “low-THC cannabis (hemp) flowers onto which HHC has been sprayed (these look and smell like illicit cannabis), vape pens, e‑liquid cartridges, edibles and oils”.
“The abbreviation HHC is used to describe a variety of compounds but the ones we care about are hexahydrocannabinols,” Dr. Daniel Nasrallah, Assistant Professor at Roanoke College in Virginia,” told THE FACE. He has published research on the chemistry and biology of HHC. “However, this name still represents more than a single compound.”
“HHC appears to have broadly similar effects to THC, the main psychoactive substance in cannabis,” the EMCDDA says. It was first noted in the 1940s by an American chemist called Roger Adams, but only emerged on the drug markets in North America and Europe in late 2021.
The EMCDDA started monitoring HHC as a new psychoactive substance in 2022. Last year, they reported that the market was “rapidly evolving”. Between October 2022 and April 2023 there were 50 seizures of products containing HHC in Europe “amounting to some 70kg and almost 100 litres of material”. They were mostly small-scale, although they noted “three large seizures in Italy, Poland and Germany, suggesting a potentially larger trade”.
Here’s what we know about HHC so far.
How is HHC made?
“The exact details of how HHC is produced by major suppliers are not publicly known,” says Dr. Nasrallah. “But the most straightforward way to make HHC would be from THC or CBD. If you use CBD or THC to make HHC, you have to do what chemists call a reduction, specifically, a hydrogenation.”
He added: “The most common hydrogenation method to make HHC involves hydrogen gas, a highly flammable gas, and a pyrophoric metal catalyst. This is a dangerous combination; pyrophoric reagents can ignite spontaneously in the air. Of further importance to consumers of HHC is that these metal catalysts are often toxic at fairly low concentrations.”
Can HHC do more harm than normal weed?
“It’s worth noting that a recent paper was published assessing the safety profile of the HHC isomers and found no inherent concerns in terms of cardiac safety and cytotoxicity,” says Dr. Nasrallah. However, he still thinks that it could be more dangerous than weed. “HHC can be more dangerous than traditional THC. Not because the dosage or effects are different from THC but because HHC being sold is not being rigorously tested for toxic metals.”
There may be a higher risk of toxic metals in HHC due to the way it’s made. “We were unable to obtain and test samples for ourselves so we cannot say anything definitively,” he explains. “But to me, it follows logically that if hydrogenation with toxic metals is being used in the step that makes HHC, there might still be some toxic metals present in the samples. We simply do not know.”
Is HHC legal in the UK?
The short answer is it’s legal to have a personal amount but illegal to sell. HHC falls under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 (PSA): a catch-all, blanket ban on any psychoactive substance at all. This was brought in to stop underground chemists from tweaking a molecule of an illegal substance to create one that’s similar in effect but legal. Unless a drug is specifically exempt, like alcohol or nicotine are, for example, it is automatically covered by the PSA.
“It’s captured by the PSA as it is a psychoactive drug,” Steve Rolles, the senior policy analyst at drugs charity Transform, told THE FACE. “That does, however, mean that it is not an offence to possess it, although it can still be confiscated, but is an offence to sell or supply it – so in theory the legal jeopardy is lower than for cannabis.”
So, possession of HHC is not illegal, although that comes with a couple of caveats. Firstly, a quirk in the PSA means that if you are in possession of HHC in a prison it is illegal. Second, if you’re found with CBD weed with HHC sprayed on it, the police are likely to think it’s simply illegal (THC-derived) weed because it will look identical. This could cause you some problems. “The police may well not know what it is if it’s found in a search,” Rolles says. “And an individual could still be arrested on suspicion until forensics establishes what a substance is.”
Even if the substance is eventually found to be HHC, possible time in the cells and a period on bail waiting for lab tests to come back doesn’t sound like fun. A third issue is that, unless you get it tested yourself, you potentially won’t know if what you’ve got is HHC or something illegal. “It may be the case, for example, that something sold as HHC is, in fact, a synthetic cannabinoid like spice, which is prohibited under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 so possession is illegal,” Rolles warns.
Niamh Eastwood, executive director of Release, a charity that focuses on drug law, echoes Rolles on this. “Possession with intent to supply is an offence under the PSA and possession in a custodial [prison] setting is also an offence,” she told THE FACE. “But not possession in the community or outside of custody.”
Whenever a new substance starts to get popular it poses legal challenges for the Crown Prosecution Service. “I’m not sure if there’s been any prosecutions for HHC supply, or possession with intent to supply yet,” says Rolles. “For that to happen it might have to be tested in court and shown to be psychoactive. How that is established is a bit murky.”
Dealing HHC would likely be treated as selling any Class B drug which, depending on any previous convictions, could land you with prison time with a maximum of 14 years at His Majesty’s pleasure. Although the max sentence for drug offences is rarely enforced, you’re still going to get in a lot of trouble if you’re caught dealing drugs.
Allowing the possession but leaving the supply in the hands of the black market, where vendors will have varying or non-existent levels of quality control, is frankly bizarre. It’s the age-old story with drugs; if we had sensible laws regulating these substances the potential harms would be greatly reduced.