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 our last article in this series, we analysed the current situation in Western Europe. This time, we will be looking further East, to understand how cannabis markets are evolving in Eastern Europe.
When you think about the European cannabis industry, the chances are your mind takes you to the Netherlands, Germany, or even the UK – but, there are also exciting things happening in the East of the continent. North Macedonia is one country with some of the most promising plans for a future cannabis industry. In recent years, the government in NMK – the abbreviation for North Macedonia – have revealed plans for a number of cannabis reforms, some of which have already been implemented.
Medical cannabis was legalised in the country in 2016 and over 60 cultivation licenses have been issued since. The law change did not originally allow for the export of cannabis flower; however, a draft law that was drawn up last Summer could soon change that. Furthermore, while cannabis remains illegal for recreational purposes, NMK’s prime minister has expressed interest in creating a cannabis tourism industry, similar to that seen in the Netherlands.
While these plans could present significant opportunities for those in the cannabis industry in the coming years, it is worth noting that progress has been halted on multiple occasions.
In 2018, Georgia became the first former Soviet state to allow cannabis consumption. In a ruling by the country’s constitutional court, it was announced that punishing individuals for cannabis use is against individual freedom as the action can only cause harm to the user. As a result, cannabis use effectively became legal – unless use poses a threat to a third party; however, the cultivation and sale of the plant remains prohibited. Nonetheless, many advocates hope that the favourable rulings by the constitutional court could pave the way for further reforms in the future.
In recent years, the government has also been exploring the potential of permitting cannabis exports. All in all, the future of cannabis remains fairly uncertain in Georgia. Still, it is worth remembering that the country undoubtedly has one of the most liberal approaches to the plant in the whole of Europe.
Headlines relating to Ukraine have this year been filled with devastation and emotion, owing to the ongoing Russian invasion. However, before – and incredibly, during – this devastating series of events, Ukraine has been taking some significant steps toward cannabis reform. Only last month, the country’s Health Minister, Viktor Liashko, announced that the government would be backing a bill to legalise medical cannabis. The move, he said, would aim to aid mental health recovery in the ongoing war and the aftermath of the conflict.
In a Facebook post, dated 7th June, Minister Liashko wrote, “We understand the negative effects of war on mental health. We understand the number of people who will need medical treatment due to this exposure. And we understand that there is no time to wait.”
In addition to allowing access to patients for the treatment of over 50 health conditions, the bill would also provide control over the cultivation, production, and sale of medical cannabis products. Despite this promising development, the recreational use and cultivation of the plant will remain illegal – at least for now.
Czechia (Czech Republic)
The Czech Republic was a relatively early mover when it comes to medical cannabis in Europe. The country introduced the legalisation of medical cannabis in 2013 – three years earlier than Germany. Furthermore, patients in the Czech Republic are permitted to cultivate up to five plants for personal medical use.
While recreational use remains illegal, possession of less than 10 grams of the drug and up to five plants at home have been effectively decriminalised since 2010. However, users can still face civil repercussions such as fines up to €580. Possession of more than these quantities can also carry strict criminal punishments, including prison terms of 2-18 years.
Many in the country are hoping that the near future could see the introduction of even more liberal reforms. The opposition ‘Pirate Party’, for example, has long campaigned for the full legalisation of cannabis. However, a proposal spearheaded by the party was last year rejected by lawmakers. The proposal would have legalised the domestic cultivation of up to five plants and possession of up to 30 grams of cannabis.
Last and by no means least we have Malta. While technically not situated in either Western or Eastern Europe, this tiny island state has helped to set the pace of cannabis reform in Europe in recent years. At the end of last year, Malta became the first EU member country to legalise the possession and cultivation of cannabis for recreational uses. Under the new legislation, adults are permitted to carry up to seven grams of cannabis, and grow up to four plants at home. Those found to be in violation of these rules – but still in possession of less than 28 grams – could be fined up to €100. Public consumption and smoking cannabis in front of children will also trigger significant fines.
The Future of European Cannabis
The ongoing wave of reform that is sweeping across Europe (and the rest of the world) is only likely to intensify in coming years. Over the last three years alone, a significant number of European countries have announced plans – and even introduced legislation – to legalise recreational cannabis. Furthermore, the medical cannabis and CBD sectors are continuing to expand across the continent, giving more patients wider access to cannabis-based medicines than has been seen in over a century.