Cannabis has held a top spot on the list of ‘most-used drugs’ for decades now, and there is no sign that this long reign is nearing an end. In fact, as more countries around the world continue to liberalise the cannabis plant for industrial, medicinal, and recreational purposes, it is likely that its popularity will, likewise, only continue to grow. While cannabis reforms have most commonly been associated with North America in recent years – thanks to law changes in Canada and a growing number of US states – Europe is steadily emerging as a hugely promising cannabis market.
Recent figures indicate that around 10% of the European population had consumed cannabis in some form in the past year. That equates to almost 75 million people – a huge potential customer base for any industry. But how do these figures differ in the countries that make up the continent? And, more importantly, how are these countries approaching changing attitudes to cannabis legalisation?
In the first part of our European cannabis overview, we are taking a look at the countries in Western Europe.
Leaders on the Continent?
When we think of cannabis in Europe, many of us may instinctively think of the Netherlands. After all, this is a country that has built a significant tourist industry on its relaxed approach to cannabis control. Tourists have flocked to the country’s stunning main city to take in the scenery, attend impressive museums and art galleries and, of course, relax in some of the famed ‘coffeeshops’ for years.
Cannabis coffeeshops have been serving cannabis users in the Netherlands since 1972 – though the sale of cannabis outside these licensed premises remains illegal. The actual legislation relating to this business model remains somewhat confusing. Officially, the possession, sale, and production of all ‘drugs’ is illegal in the Netherlands. The authorities do, however, operate a “policy of toleration” regarding so-called “soft” drugs like cannabis. Under this policy, the sale and consumption of cannabis are tolerated in coffee shops, under certain conditions.
While this lenient approach has made the Netherlands a favourite for cannabis tourists from around the world, it is not the Netherlands that has been making headlines for its progressive approach to cannabis in recent years.
Germany has been a significant market ‘to watch’ for years now, thanks to its significant consumer base and relatively relaxed approach to cannabis. This reputation came to a head last year when German lawmakers announced that the country was to introduce a legal market for recreational cannabis. The German Health Ministry is currently holding hearings with a number of leading experts and representatives from the medical, legal and other fields to determine what the legal cannabis sector will look like.
While the details remain uncertain, it is likely that the new industry will include licensed retailers and producers of recreational cannabis products. Furthermore, it remains possible that recreational legalisation will come into force by the end of 2022. The move would make Germany the largest European market for both medical and recreational cannabis.
The country legalised medical cannabis in 2016. Since then, it is estimated that around 130,000 patients have been prescribed cannabis-based medicines for the treatment of a number of conditions and illnesses. Nonetheless, recent reports show that the medical cannabis sector in Germany may be faltering, due to a lack of access and unwillingness to prescribe among doctors. It is possible, however, that these issues will be addressed with the eventual introduction of a fully legal market.
While it is likely that German legalisation will come first, Luxembourg was actually the first Western European country to announce plans to legalise recreational cannabis. Back in December 2018, the Luxembourg government published a 250-page policy document, partly highlighting the plans for legalisation. Since then, research has been conducted to identify the best approach to the policy – however, implementation has been significantly delayed due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
According to the government, citizens will be allowed to cultivate and consume cannabis on private property once legalisation passes. To this end, it is likely that Luxembourgers will be able to buy cannabis seeds in stores across the country. The government hopes that the new legislation will help to steer consumers away from the black market. Revenue gained from fines and taxes will also be prioritised for prevention and harm reduction programmes.
Currently, cannabis is decriminalised in Luxembourg, but possession, consumption, and sale in public spaces can carry significant fines. The ban on public consumption will remain in place, though current fines of 251 – 2500 euros will be replaced with 25 – 500 euros. Medical cannabis has also been legal in the country since 2017.
Switzerland has also put cannabis in international headlines in recent years thanks to plans for a cannabis legalisation trial. The scheme, set to kick off in the city of Zurich later this year, will aim to determine the impact of regulated cannabis use in a three-and-a-half-year-long study. Depending on the findings of the study, it is possible that the whole country could soon be welcoming a legal market. Last year, the Commission for Social Security and Health of the Council of States approved a draft law that would end the ban on cannabis and introduce legal regulation on the industry.
Switzerland has taken a more relaxed approach to cannabis than many of its European neighbours for years. For example, while the THC limit for hemp cultivation sits at 0.2% according to EU laws, Swiss cultivators are permitted to legally grow plants containing up to 1% THC.
Italy legalised medical cannabis in 2013, allowing doctors to prescribe authorised cannabis-based medicines for a range of conditions. The demand for these medicines is largely met by domestic cannabis supply, with the addition of imports from other countries – particularly the Netherlands.
While recreational cannabis remains illegal (at least for the moment), the sale of low-THC cannabis flowers – widely referred to as ‘cannabis light’ – has been a controversial issue in recent years. This practice was largely tolerated as retailers would include messages such as “do not smoke” or “product not for human use” in order that industrial cannabis laws would apply to the products.
The full extent of Italy’s cannabis prohibition remains somewhat confusing. While it is widely accepted that recreational cannabis is illegal throughout the country, news reports last year indicated that home cultivation would be permitted. However, it remains unclear whether these rules have been formally introduced.
Earlier this year, campaigners and advocates in Italy were overjoyed when they gained enough signatures to secure a referendum on the legalisation of cannabis. The referendum was first expected to be carried out at some point in 2022. However, the country’s constitutional court recently blocked the movement.
The UK is one of the world’s top exporters of medical cannabis – a title it held even before the legalisation of medical cannabis within its own borders. The UK government finally legalised cannabis for medicinal uses in November 2018; however, patient access remains relatively low. To date, the vast majority of prescriptions have been fulfilled via private clinics, as opposed to the National Health Service. Furthermore, findings suggest that a significant proportion of the population is still unaware that medical cannabis is legal in the country.
When it comes to recreational cannabis, the UK is nowhere near as progressive as some of the other nations on this list. While the potential of decriminalisation is commonly debated – note London’s ‘cannabis decriminalisation trial’ – the ruling government has made it abundantly clear that it has no plans to change its approach to cannabis.
Other European Markets
While cannabis legalisation is undoubtedly progressing across Western Europe, there remain some exceptions to the rule. One of the starkest examples is France where, despite being one of the continent’s largest consumers of the drug, there is no sign of legislative change. France does, however, continue to hold on to its title as Europe’s biggest hemp producer, though plants are restricted to the EU’s 0.2% THC limit.
Lawmakers in Spain and Portugal also seem unwilling at present to introduce further reforms to their cannabis policies – which may once have been seen as progressive.
CBD across the Continent
When it comes to CBD, the EU’s Novel Foods ruling went a long way to uniting Europe’s approach. Products containing the non-psychoactive cannabinoid are largely legal across both Western and Eastern Europe, and demand has been on the up in recent years. However, as we have seen with hemp regulation, we also see differences in the permitted THC levels in CBD products from country to country. For example,
Western Europe is still a regulatory and legislative patchwork when it comes to all aspects of cannabis. Nonetheless, the general trend suggests that the public and, increasingly, lawmakers are heading for a more liberal approach to the plant in coming years.
Keep your eyes peeled for the second part of our summary of the European cannabis market, where we will be taking a closer look at cannabis in Eastern Europe.
Take a look at part two of The Lookout in Europe to see how cannabis legislation is progressing in Eastern European countries.