HHCH to be Designated a Controlled Substance; Multiple People Hospitalized After Consuming ‘Cannabis Gummies’

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Cannabis gummies in a photo taken in November. The letters HHCH are seen on the packaging.

The health ministry has decided to designate the synthetic compound HHCH (hexahydrocannabihexol) as a controlled substance after multiple individuals were hospitalized after consuming gummies containing the cannabis-like ingredient.

HHCH will be designated as a controlled substance as early as Wednesday, and the possession and use of HHCH will be prohibited from Dec. 2, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. However, every time regulations are tightened, a new similar compound appears. This game of cat and mouse highlights the difficulty of dealing with these issues.

“One hour after eating the gummies, my head was spinning,” said a 32-year-old office worker who ate “cannabis gummies” sold at a shop in Toshima Ward, Tokyo, in early October.

The gummies tasted like cola, and their texture was the same as ordinary gummies. But after eating them, he felt as if he had drunk a lot of alcohol at once, and a sense of discomfort continued until the next day. The man added, “I tried [the gummies] casually. I’ll never consume them again.”

The same gummies were sold at a shop in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, for ¥7,000 for a packet containing 10 gummies. According to the Shibuya shop, they had sold the gummies to about 30 people since August. Purchasers of the gummies came to the shop because they were interested in items such as liquid for electronic cigarettes containing CBD (cannabidiol), a legal ingredient found in cannabis.

The shop’s official said: “We explain the health risks to customers. We encourage them to consume only a bit at a time as it is dangerous for those who have no tolerance to eat even one gummi.”

Order to suspend sales

The gummies were manufactured by WWE, an Osaka-based food company. The company has sold gummies made at its own factory to about 50 shops in Japan and on the internet since April. The letters HHCH have been printed on the gummies’ packaging.

Though HHCH had not been designated as a controlled substance under the Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices Law, a number of people complained about health problems after eating the gummies. According to the Metropolitan Police Department, 12 people have been hospitalized in Tokyo since October. Of them, a man in his 30s went into a stupor after consuming four gummies at a restaurant in Shimbashi district, Minato Ward, Tokyo.

According to Osaka prefectural police, about a dozen people have been taken to hospitals in Osaka Prefecture since January.

In response to the situation, the health ministry investigated the gummies sold in Tokyo and confirmed that they contained HHCH and decided Monday to designate it as a controlled substance to stop distribution. The Narcotics Control Department of the ministry’s Kinki Regional Bureau of Health and Welfare also conducted an on-site inspection of WWE on Monday and issued an order to stop sales of the gummies.

Preemptive measures

Foods and other products containing ingredients similar in chemical structure to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), an illegal ingredient in cannabis, have been sold one after another in recent years.

In 2021, liquid for electronic cigarettes containing HHC (hexahydrocannabinol) were distributed. Due to concerns over health risks such as hallucinogenic effects and memory impairment, HHC was designated as a controlled substance in March 2022. Soon after, products containing a similar compound, THCH (tetrahydrocannabihexol), appeared on the market and were added to the list of controlled substances in August this year.

There is a high possibility that HHCH contained in gummies has spread to fill the gap left by these synthetic compounds. The ministry is considering a comprehensive designation that would include synthetic compounds similar to HHCH. But a health ministry official said, “Comprehensive regulations are difficult.”

Masahiko Funada, a professor of psychopharmacology at Shonan University of Medical Sciences and an expert on drug problems, said, “The government should take preemptive measures, such as collecting information on synthetic compounds which have been confirmed to cause health problems overseas and regulating them before they are distributed in Japan.”

Smuggling through social media

“Edible cannabis,” in the form of gummies, cookies and chocolates, have been smuggled through social media in recent years.

Last year, the Narcotics Control Department of the Tokai-Hokuriku Regional Bureau of Health and Welfare arrested four men in their teens and 20s on charges of violating the Cannabis Control Law for possession with the intention to make profit. According to the bureau, they allegedly said that they had added cannabis grown in an apartment in Saitama Prefecture to butter, baked a large quantity of cookies, and sold them through social media to about 2,500 people across the country.

There is no end to posts on X offering to buy sweets and other products containing cannabis ingredients.

The police and the Narcotics Control Department intend to beef up investigations of similar cases amid an increase in cannabis abuse among young people. There have been a series of arrests of university students who belong to sports clubs on suspicion of possessing marijuana and stimulants.