[Exclusive Expert Interview] China: Cannabis Research and Policy Prospects

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"Chinese government will fully lift all restrictions on the industrial cannabis. It is expected that the CBD medicine will be fully legalized as soon as 2020."
China: Cannabis Research and Policy Prospects

Located in the southwest corner of mainland China, Yunnan Province is one of the world’s largest producers of cannabis due to its unique climate and natural environment. Within the Chinese border, cannabis cultivation only exists in Heilongjiang and Yunnan. Yunnan is also the most suitable area for industrial cannabis (hemp) cultivation, and it has the only resources of cannabis strains and raw materials in China that have industrialized development.

In many parts of Yunnan, thriving cannabis plants can be seen everywhere. Local ethnic minorities have a tradition of using cannabis and its derivatives in large areas of daily life since ancient times. Local residents live in harmony with this plant. Traditional craftsmanship has turned cannabis into snacks, health supplements and medicines treating certain conditions. In other parts of mainland China, cannabis is a sensitive plant that has been arbitrarily described as a drug associated with a possible extreme penalty. Coupled with global stigmatization of cannabis, most Chinese people are always cautious towards any topic about cannabis, the media is also hampered by policies and regulations, and there are few reports on the cannabis industry.

Yunnan Province is the only province in China that has allowed and regulated industrial cannabis cultivation in the form of regulations. As early as January 1, 2010, Yunnan Province passed and implemented the “Yunnan Industrial Cannabis Planting and Processing Licensing Regulations”, the cannabis-related industry has been incorporated into regulation in a certain sense, while in the United States, which is now vigorously promoting the legalization of cannabis, the Farm Bill was passed on December 20, 2018, and marijuana with a THC content of less than 0.3% was finally removed from the “Controlled Substance”, industrial cannabis in the United States has ushered in full legalization. According to data from the World Intellectual Property Organization, 309 of the 606 patent applications for cannabis in the world in 2017 was from China.

Vapebiz recently contacted Dr.Mei, a Cannabis research expert from Yunnan China for a phone interview. Dr.Mei, with his solid research background and passion towards cannabis, gave us a valuable insight of China’s cannabis research progress. Before we jump into the formal interview content, I would like to introduce some things that need to be understood.

Hemp and CBD

1. Industrial Cannabis and CBD

Industrial cannabis refers to cannabis primary plants and their extracts containing less than 0.3% (weight of dry contents) of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). China refers to industrial cannabis as Hemp to differentiate it from marijuana or other cannabis strains used for recreational purposes. Cannabis can be divided into industrial cannabis (hemp) and recreational cannabis (marijuana), among them, hemp is more widely used in the world. The application of cannabis can be roughly divided into three parts: industrial, medical, and recreational. Regarding industrial use, China has thousands of years of history of using hemp fiber as fabric; Traditional Chinese medicine use hemp as one of main treatment of neurological diseases; For recreational use, cannabis (marijuana) is mainly used for entertainment and relaxation. With the increasing aging population getting Alzheimer’s disease, and the efficacy of cannabis extract treating related mental diseases has an amazing effect, which is also in line with the concept of chronic disease management advocated by the Paris clinic. Restricted by law and regulations, China’s cannabis market does not open to the outside world. That is to say, the market of more than 1.4 billion people is only in the hands of a few Chinese domestic companies.

CBD is cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive content in cannabis which has proven highly effective in treating many diseases such as anorexia, AIDS, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, brain tumors, etc. Due to its importance and scarcity, the price is more expensive than gold in the international market. In Europe and America, CBD infused products (food, health products, cosmetics) have been legally sold in the market. CBD oil is a natural ingredient extracted from cannabis and is now legally used in fifty states across the United States and can be exported to forty countries including China. CBD oil is not only widely used in nutrition, skincare, general beverages, and functional beverages, but also in traditional and direct sales.

Further Reading:

CBD vs. THC: What’s the Difference? – Leafly

Yunnan Province

2. Conditions for Cannabis Cultivation, Processing Environment and Processing Licenses in Yunnan Province

On January 1, 2010, Yunnan Province passed and implemented the Yunnan Industrial Cannabis Planting and Processing Licensing Regulations; In March 2012, China’s Twelfth Five-Year Plan included building infrastructure for cotton, wool and marijuana production bases. This plan provided huge support for the cannabis industry. At that time, the Chinese military had officially used socks, underwear, towels, and uniforms made of industrial hemp. By 2015, the National Food and Drug Administration of China allowed the use of cannabis leaf extract in cosmetics; On November 25, 2016, the world’s largest cannabinoid extraction plant began operations in Kunming, China, and it received a legal treatment license from the National Food and Drug Administration of China in less than eight weeks. Today, the breeding, cultivation, and processing of Chinese industrial hemp is governed under the Anti-Drug Act passed by the People’s Congress on May 1, 2017.

Yunnan is also the most suitable area for industrial cannabis cultivation, and it has the only resources of cannabis strains and raw material in China that have industrialized development. In recent years, large-scale cultivation has been carried out in more than ten states and counties of Kunming, Yuxi, Honghe, Wenshan, Chuxiong, Lijiang, Baoshan, Qujing and Xishuangbanna in Yunnan Province.

We have learned from relevant departments that the application for industrial cannabis processing license for industrial cannabis leaf processing should meet the following conditions:

  • There are approx $3.5 Million of registered capital or scientific research institutions of medicines, foods, and chemicals that are compiled by institutions;
  • Plans for raw material sources, raw material use, product types, and product processing;
  • There are special testing equipment and facilities and places for storage and processing;
  • There are management systems for testing, storage, and accounting.

At the same time, if the industrial cannabis processing license is obtained, the following materials shall be submitted to the county-level public security department at the processing site:

  • Industrial cannabis processing license application form;
  • Business license or unit registration certificate;
  • List of inspection equipment, storage and processing facilities, and photos, proof of use of the processing site;
  • Planned texts of raw material sources, raw material use, product types, and product processing;
  • Text of management systems such as inspection, storage, and account.

The public security department of Yunnan Province mentioned earlier that their attitude toward the license is: as long as the enterprise meets the requirements, the license will be granted, but it will be strictly controlled.

CBD Research in China

3. Current Medical CBD Research in China

In Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan Province, there are currently two FDA-certified CBD research laboratories. According to Dr.Mei, there is currently an important CBD medicine experiment being carried out here, and breakthroughs have been made.

Previously, a new medicine Epidiolex developed by the pharmaceutical company GW Pharmaceuticals was approved by the FDA for the treatment of two rare and serious epilepsy, Specifically: Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, the medicine is also the first approved of its kinds containing purified cannabis extract.

Further Reading:

GW Pharmaceuticals plc and its U.S. Subsidiary Greenwich Biosciences Announce FDA Approval of EPIDIOLEX (cannabidiol) oral solution – the First Plant-derived Cannabinoid Prescription Medicine

According to Dr. Mei, currently, The Kunming laboratory’s ongoing CBD medicine research focuses on treating epilepsy, gout, Parkinson’s, autism, depression and Alzheimer’s disease. The methods of application are oral and subcutaneous. Researchers have conducted quantitative experiments on mice and monkeys. Using a CBD aqueous solution at a certain concentration, the CBD absorption rate reaches 11.4%, which is several times higher than the 4.6% of Epidiolex. At the same time, Kunming laboratory’s new medicine costs much less than Epidiolex.

The above research progress is attributed to the combination of water-soluble CBD technology, cannabis’ entourage effect and the basic theory of Chinese traditional medicine.

Sorrento Water-soluble CBD Technology

3.1 Water-soluble CBD Technology

Oil and water are not mixed, CBD oil is no exception. CBD is hydrophobic, miscible with oil, but not miscible with water. In fact, all cannabinoids are hydrophobic.

Oil-based CBD tincture is popular because of their fat-soluble/lipophilic nature and rapid effects. Simply hold the CBD oil under the tongue for 1-3 minutes and it will be absorbed by the oral mucosa and then circulated in the blood vessels Sublingually. Using CBD oil (not just swallowing it) is one of the fastest ways to absorb CBD because it does not have to pass through the digestive tract and liver, but to reach the blood and take effect directly.

However, the human body still contains about 60%-70% water, which makes the absorption rate and utilization of many CBD methods (whether it is a tincture, capsule, edible or beverage) relatively low. Studies have shown that in the case of oral (CBD-infused beverages and foods), the bioavailability of CBD may be only 4%, which means that up to 96% of the CBD initially taken by the human body will eventually be excreted from the body. It has literally no effect.

Low bioavailability provides room for the development of water-soluble CBD technology. Water-soluble CBD is more effective than other methods. This efficiency means both high CBD absorption rate and affordability for customers.

The water-soluble CBD technology currently used by Kunming laboratory is from the US biopharmaceutical company Sorrento Therapeutics, Inc (NASDAQ: SRNE), which is mainly engaged in the research, development, and commercialization of novel candidate therapeutic drugs for the treatment of patients with various conditions. Includes cancer, inflammation, epidemics, and metabolic disorder.

Water soluble CBDs are prepared by nanotechnology. Simply put, nanotechnology uses acoustic beams to break down CBD clusters into tiny particles smaller than 100 nanometers, at which point the CBD becomes a product that is compatible with water because it is now small enough to dissolve and mix seamlessly with water molecules.

The principle is not difficult to understand, but current CBD products face the limitations of oil-based formulations. Available oral CBD products formulated with sesame oil or olive oil may cause gastrointestinal intolerance and it is expected that aqueous formulations will overcome this inconvenient property.

About Sorrento Therapeutics, Vapebiz will bring more detailed and exclusive following-up.

Cannabis Terpenes

3.2 Cannabis Terpenes and the Entourage Effect

Terpenes is an uncommon word, as science and technology development, we are becoming more aware of cannabis then we have found that terpenes are irreplaceable importance for the medicinal value of cannabis. Terpene is an aromatic hydrocarbon. It is a viscous crystalline resin containing hundreds of cannabinoids and terpenoids. This substance gives cannabis a variety of different odors. In fact, many plants in nature secrete terpenes.

Terpenes are generally considered safe by the FDA and other agencies. It has been proven that terpenes are healthy for both humans and plants. The interaction of cannabinoids with terpenoids enhances the beneficial effects of cannabis while reducing the mental side effects caused by THC. The researchers also highlighted the pharmacological importance of terpenes or terpenoids, which form the basis of aromatherapy, a popular holistic treatment.

Raphael Mechoulam, an Israeli chemist and marijuana expert, proposed the cannabinoid entourage effect (also known as the “synergistic effect”) in 1999 – a variety of cannabinoids work better together, and he personally made a huge contribution on human health. Most studies on CBD use pure CBD, while extracts of whole cannabis usually include THC, CBD, and more than 400 trace compounds, including cannabis terpenes. Many of these compounds produce interactions that amplify the therapeutic benefit and make the overall medicinal effect of the plant greater than the sum of its individual compounds

More importantly, terpenes have an infinite combination of entourage effects, and by combining them with cannabinoids, the more medical value can be explored. The figure below is a schematic diagram of the Cannabis Terpene Wheel, you can click to view the original image.

Cannabis Terpene Wheel
Cannabis Terpene Wheel – via Leafly

Further Reading:

Infographic: How Do Cannabis Terpenes Affect the Body? – Leafly

Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects – Dr. Ethan B Russo

Dr. Mei also mentioned that the combination of Chinese traditional medical theory in the CBD research process helped his team achieve some additional results. We know that Chinese traditional medical theory emphasizes the combination of the main and the auxiliary medicines to achieve a more powerful efficacy, which also coincides with the entourage effect mentioned above. When the industry pursued the extraction of CBD as close to 100% as possible for medical use, the CBD research team in Kunming tried to add a very small amount of THC to the CBD aqueous solution and found that a small amount of THC can greatly promote the absorption of CBD in the animal. The effective substance does not cause any side effects to the animal body.

It is reported that after the current round of animal experiments passed the assessment, the Kunming laboratory team will obtain permission for clinical trials. Inferred from the current animal experiment, Dr. Mei expects that their CBD drug will achieve a higher absorption rate in the human body than that in animals.

Chinese cannabis policy

4. The Trend of Chinese Cannabis Policy

Since this year, marijuana has become one of the most promising industries in the eyes of the global capital market. biochemically or culturally, cannabis itself has unlimited possibilities, so it can be radiated into the fields of medicine, health care, new materials, and new lifestyles. Therefore, governments are supporting the industry in different forms.

As a country that has been strictly controlling cannabis for decades since its founding, China has gradually changed its attitude toward industrial cannabis, which is an opportunity and also a challenge for China. Due to the sensitivity of cannabis, the Chinese media did not report much on the marijuana industry in order to avoid some complicated situations. However, Vapebiz learned from the industry that with the deepening of  international academic research on cannabis and its derivatives, in recent years, Chinese government has also paid close attention to the medical research value of industrial cannabis: on the one hand, the further intensification of China’s aging has spawned a new hot industry – elderly care services, and various health care products derived from CBD can be well integrated into the industry and create greater value; on the other hand, industrial cannabis is an emerging industry in any country in the world. All kinds of research on this are in the early stage. Combined with China’s national conditions, policy support in this field can greatly boost the global competitiveness of its cannabis industry.

We have learned that Yunnan University will offer a number of course and degree related to cannabis research at the College of Life Sciences next year to train talents to serve the medical research of industrial cannabis. At the same time, the Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences will also take positive measures in cannabis breeding and cultivation to increase the CBD content of current cannabis strains.

In the United States, industrial cannabis seeds have an average CBD content of around 6%, the highest one can reach 11%, and 15 pounds of industrial cannabis material can be extracted to 1 pound of CBD. In contrast, among China’s cannabis seeds, the highest CBD content is about 1.3%, with an average of 1%. However, in the Chinese policy environment, the CBD content problem has to be comprehensively considered, because the industrial cannabis THC value must be less than 0.3% as per existing law but the CBD is the isomer of THC, the content of the two substances is positively correlated in the same cannabis strain. The latest improvement is in September 2018, the Institute of Economic Crops of Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences completed the breeding of all female breeds, planted 5 acres in the research base of Yuming, the rate of female hemp is over 98%, the content of CBD is 2.09%, THC is only 0.14%, the yield of flowers and leaves increased by more than 22% compared with dioecious plants.

Dr. Mei said that the CBD drug research team in Kunming is progressing smoothly. After all, the clinical trials have been completed and the data submitted for review, the Chinese government will fully lift all restrictions on industrial cannabis. It is expected that the CBD medicine will be fully legalized as soon as 2020, relevant laws will be introduced to regulate and give necessary policy support; realize classified regulation of cannabis products within three years. Cannabinoids not only have a significant effect on some intractable diseases such as cancer and AIDS but also slowly become a preventive drug used worldwide. We only need to wait for researchers to collect more evidence to prove its Effect. Now governments around the world are gradually lifting restrictions on cannabis products based on scientific research. I believe that in the near future, cannabinoid drugs will soon become an indispensable part of human life. More people will understand the value of cannabis.

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