How Czechia is Charging Ahead With Cannabis Reforms

Lukas Hurt breaks down the key recent reforms to Czechia's changing cannabis policy

by Lukas Hurt

We’re all talking about the latest cannabis developments in Germany, but there is one small country right at the corner, which may be even more exciting in terms of cannabis reforms and ending cannabis prohibition. Let’s see what’s new in the world of Czech cannabis… 

Over the last two years, the Czech Republic has seen several major reforms to its cannabis laws, which have significantly influenced the domestic cannabis sector (whether we are talking about medical, industrial hemp, or recreational cannabis) and also may have significant international impact. Let’s take a look at each of the reforms and look into what they could mean for the cannabis industry, cannabis users and the general public…

Changes to the medical cannabis system

At the beginning of last year, groundbreaking changes to the system of medical cannabis in the Czech Republic (legal here since 2013) came into force. Specifically, the monopoly of a single domestic grower was finally ended, which means that from 1 January 2022, there can be any number of domestic growers of cannabis for medical use. Those interested in applying for a licence must meet stringent criteria of the Ministry of Health and the State Institute for Drug Control (SÚKL). 

It should be noted that the requirements for standardisation, quality and health safety of the final product or, for example, the security of growing facilities and documentation of all processes, are very stringent, and the initial investment in such a project is therefore in the order of several million euro. It is therefore still not a business opportunity for small business owners – they will have to wait for the regulation of recreational cannabis, which is expected to not be subject to such strict requirements as the production of official cannabis medicines. But we’ll get to that in part three of this article.

In addition to this major change in the licensing system for domestic medical cannabis growers, lawmakers approved another extremely important proposal in this area – allowing the export of medical cannabis that has been grown in the Czech Republic. The Czech market is still very small, with only around 5 000 registered patients and a total annual consumption of up to 150 kilograms of dry plant matter. Not dissimilar to the United Kingdom, the main reason for this is a lack of interest from doctors: of the more than 40 000 who work in the Czech Republic, only around 200 prescribe medicinal cannabis. Therefore, if domestic producers of medicinal cannabis want to survive economically and make a profit, they will have to take into account from the outset that most of their production will have to be directed to foreign markets.

At least one such cultivation facility is currently in operation, and it delivered its first harvest to Czech pharmacies and to Germany in January. According to unofficial sources, at least one more cultivation plant should be operational this year, and there is also still the original single domestic producer who is certainly interested in engaging in export activities as well. 

One percent THC

The second major change in the law also came into force on 1 January 2022, but it had nothing to do with medical cannabis. The Czech Republic became the first country in the European Union (and the second in Europe only after Switzerland) to increase the permitted limit of THC in industrial hemp and hemp products from 0.3 to 1 percent. Czechia has always been slightly ahead of the curve in this respect, as at a time when most EU countries had a limit of 0.2%, the Czech limit was 0.3%. And the moment the EU raised the limit to 0.3%, Czechia has now raised it to 1%. 

cannabis plants growing in a fieldWhat does this mean? First and foremost, a huge competitive advantage for growers and processors who no longer have to worry about their cannabis going over 0.3% in the field due to extreme weather and getting in trouble with the law because of that (which has happened repeatedly to Czech farmers). Moreover, when the strains you grow can have up to 1% THC, it also means that they can also contain much more CBD and boast richer terpene profile. In comparison, “normal” hemp with a THC limit of up to 0.2 or 0.3% can reach CBD levels of 2-3%, sometimes maybe 4-5%. Whereas varieties with a THC limit up to 1% can easily have around 8% or more CBD outdoors, and around 15-20% when grown indoor. 

This is also advantageous for end-users, where, for example, a CBD oil with 1% THC can contain up to around 20% CBD in a so-called full-spectrum extract, without the need to add CBD in the form of an isolate. When the limit was 0.3% THC, it was not possible to produce CBD oil with a CBD content higher than about 10% without adding an isolate. However, for preparations with up to 1% THC, this may present a problem for people who drive, because testing is based on THC amounts in blood.

I have personally witnessed the significant development of the Czech cannabis sector thanks to this specific change, with cultivation and processing companies coming to Czechia for example from Switzerland (where they also allow up to 1% THC), and extractors from Poland, where laws are much stricter and anything above 0.3% THC can potentially pose a problem. We will see what happens in this area over the coming months and years, but for now it seems to have been a prudent move by Czech legislators that will benefit the whole economy and individual users of CBD-rich cannabis.

Recreational cannabis regulation on the horizon

With the arrival of the new government last February, world-renowned drug and addiction expert Jindřich Vobořil returned to the post of national drug coordinator for Czechia. He has long advocated a harm reduction approach to drug policy reform, and the associated ending of cannabis prohibition. In his view, the long-standing prohibition should be replaced by a strictly regulated market for so-called recreational cannabis, available to all adults in the Czech Republic.

With official support from Prime Minister Petr Fiala, Vobořil began preparing the groundwork for the implementation of this bold plan shortly after taking office. Since December, an expert group has been meeting at the Office of the Government of the Czech Republic, along with five expert subgroups preparing the basis for the creation of completely new and, in my opinion, revolutionary legislation. 

Petr Pavel, President-Elect of the Czech Republic

Petr Pavel, President-Elect of the Czech Republic

The goal of Jindřich Voboril and his team is to have a draft law ready on the table by the end of March, which will then go through the standard legislative process through committees and comments to a vote in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The current government has a majority in both chambers, but opposition from the police, the judiciary, opposing health experts and conservative Christian politicians shows that this will certainly not be an easy path. However, for reformers there is the additional good news that President-elect Petr Pavel, elected at the end of January, has repeatedly expressed clear support for legalization efforts (unlike his rival, whom he overwhelmingly defeated).

The three pillars

Legalization, or rather regulation, of cannabis in the Czech Republic is expected to be based on three pillars: homegrowing, cannabis social clubs and the commercial market. The aim is to satisfy international conventions and obligations, to meet the demands of individuals for impunity for home cultivation for their personal use and, last but not least, to create some income to fill the state coffers. It can therefore be expected that all three pillars will be subject to control by the state authorities and will include administrative and bureaucratic elements such as the registration of home growers, the licensing of clubs and the taxation of all commercial activities, from cultivation to processing to sale in specialized shops. A total ban on advertising is being discussed, as well as other restrictive measures.

As a member of two of the expert sub-groups, I can say so far that there are many options in play, but the primary focus is on ensuring that the Czech Republic cannot subsequently be challenged by, for example, the European Commission for breaking the European Union’s legal system. It will also be crucial to see how similar efforts develop in neighbouring Germany. Jindřich Voboril’s team is in regular contact with its representatives in order to coordinate the actions of both countries on this sensitive issue, which will potentially have an impact on the entire European Union.

The latest developments

On Friday 3 February, the expert working group on the preparation of the framework proposal for the regulation of cannabis had the latest meeting. “We did not draw any conclusions today. However, I consider it very important that representatives of the expert community, ministries and political representation at all levels meet to hear the views of others,” says Vobořil. According to him, a draft proposal could be ready at the next meeting, which would then go into political discussion.

“My ambition still remains that we will eventually have a law in force in 2024,” concludes the Czech drug coordinator.

Lukas Hurt is a Czech translator and journalist focusing on cannabis legalization. Follow him on LinkedIn here or on Twitter @LHurysek

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