Moving into October, cannabis reform has been on the agenda of a number of countries across Europe. Now that campaigners and advocates are finally gaining recognition for their efforts, let’s take a look at some of the countries that are spurring on with cannabis reform.
Set to become the world’s largest legal cannabis market, Germany is one the main European countries pushing ahead with cannabis reform. Back in October 2022, leaked plans unveiled Germany’s intentions to legalise adult recreational use, featuring a highly controversial 15% THC limit.
If Germany wants to eliminate the illicit market it needs to do better than 15% thc limit.
Education is key in reducing harms not banning strains which are market preference
— Paul North (@Paul__North) October 19, 2022
Over the past 12 months the plans have seen a number of reiterations and encountered several hurdles. Back in November there were concerns that the draft law could be stopped in its tracks due to tensions between the bill and EU law. These areas of contention mainly revolved around the movement of cannabis into the country and cannabis tourism.
However, in March 2023, German Health Minister, Karl Lauterbach, reported that he had received ‘very good feedback’ from the EU with regards to the plans, so much so that he was confident that a revised version of the bill would comply with EU law. At this stage the final nature of the bill was still unknown, but it was clear that it would appear as a much less liberal version of the original ‘cornerstone’ paper.
In April 2023, the revised version of the bill was officially confirmed, featuring a two-pillared approach which focused on non-commercial cultivation through cannabis social clubs (CSCs) and a 5-year regional pilot programme of licensed ‘specialist shops’. The first arm of the new plans aimed to bring in adult access to ‘clean’ cannabis as quickly as possible, with the second arm bridging the gap to full legalisation.
A full outline of the rules for CSCs was given in May, leaving many in the industry disappointed at the shift from the liberal cornerstone paper to a highly regulated model. The leaked draft bill contained a number of new regulations, including:
- Members aged over 18 but under 21 subject to a 10% THC limit and 30g per month maximum
- No cannabis to consumed within CSCs or within a 250m radius
- CSCs may only distribute cannabis to members in neutral packaging or unpackaged so as to eliminate incentives for young people, not more than 50g max and must contain a leaflet with weight, harvest date, best before date, variety and THC/CBD levels
The new bill also outlined a number of other regulations beyond the running and management of CSCs. Perhaps the most disappointing was the clarification that the original announcement of 3 home grown plants actually pertained to 3 plants per year, with seeds or seedlings bought from a CSC.
In July, the German Government formally organised the first pillar of the approach into a formal bill which would see cannabis removed from the Narcotics Act. The first pillar of the Cannabis Act (CanG) outlined the intention to legalise private cultivation for adults, as well as non-commercial cultivation through CSCs. Once more, this next step clarified proposed regulations further, encapsulating Germany’s strict public-health approach to legalisation.
Throughout the legalisation process, Germany has remained optimistic that they would be able to introduce this first pillar by the end of 2023. The first target was to achieve cabinet approval during the summer break. In August, it was announced that the bill covering the first pillar has received approval by the cabinet, and was now ready to progress to parliament where a vote decides whether it passes into law.
Alongside this, the German Federal Ministry of Health launched its prevention campaign ‘Legal, but…’, focused on educating young people on the health risks of cannabis, despite legalisation. With slogans such as ‘Legal, but… dangerous,’ the German government still seems committed to legalisation which minimises health implications and appropriately educates young people on potential risks.
News on Germany’s legalisation efforts has fallen fairly silent over the past few months while we wait for the bill to pass through parliament, although experts suggest that passing the law should be a ‘mere formality’.
With its numerous coffee shops, The Netherlands is one of Europe’s recreational cannabis hotspots. However, the sale and cultivation of cannabis outside of these establishments remains illegal, meaning suppliers cannot supply cannabis to businesses. Possession of cannabis up to 5g is decriminalised, although the police may still confiscate it.
Back in 2019, the Dutch senate approved the ‘Wietexperiment’ (Weed Experiment), which will permit a select number of cultivators to supply legal cannabis to coffee shops throughout the country. The pilot program, originally set to launch in October 2023, has now been given the go ahead for 15th December, with coffee shops in the cities of Tilburg and Breda to receive cannabis from two official growers.
In this start-up phase, coffee shops will be permitted to continue obtaining and selling regulated and ‘tolerated’ (unregulated products), until legal suppliers are fully phased in. During the start up phase, all developments are set to be closely monitored, with all assessments shared with other participating cities. If there are any significant issues or concerns during this early stage, officials have said that the program could conclude prematurely.
Following this, a ‘transition phase’ will allow all participating cities to begin selling regulated and tolerated products. Projections suggest that all cities will begin this transition in the first few months of 2024 at the earliest, with two more cultivators joining the program in February.
Overall, the ‘closed coffee shop experiment’ aims to examine the impact of a regulated cannabis market within the Netherlands and prevent crime, offering the Government data and insights which can inform eventual legislation.
In 2001, Portugal took a huge leap by decriminalising the personal possession of all drugs. This means that the authorities don’t arrest people who are caught with less than a 10-day personal supply of a drug. Instead individuals receive a citation and must appear before ‘dissuasion panels’ made up of legal, social, and psychological experts. Repeat offenders may be offered treatment such as counselling.
Although the personal possession of cannabis is decriminalised in Portugal, trafficking, cultivation, distribution and sales are still prohibited. Cannabis legalisation has been a well discussed topic within the Portuguese Parliament, with several bills already presented this year. However, could this September signal tangible progress towards legalisation?
At the moment, some signs would point to yes. Last week, CannaReporter reported on the formation of a working group to debate and examine non-medical cannabis regulation by the Socialist Party (PS) parliamentary bench. The leader of the PS bench, Eurico Brilhante Dias, conceded that reflections on cannabis could be accompanied by the possibility of presenting a legislative initiative. However, he stated that they would not embark on this path alone. Instead, he wishes the process to be an open one, with contributions from other parliamentary groups and Portuguese society.
We’ll be keeping our eyes firmly placed on Portugal for any upcoming announcements and reflections from the working group.
Back in December 2022, we reported that Czechia was pushing ahead with plans to legalise cannabis. The country was already known for its liberal approach to cannabis legislation, having decriminalised personal possession of up to 10g and cultivation of up to 5 plants in 2010.
Czechia also has the highest rates of cannabis use in Europe. Therefore, legalisation seemed a natural next step.
In September 2022, drug commissioner Jindřich Vobořil was tasked to create a draft law for a legal adult recreational cannabis market. This was expected to be presented in March, with full legalisation set for 2024. At the time, Vobořil confirmed that the new regulations would allow adults to purchase cannabis from licenced dispensaries and pharmacies. However, it would be down to local jurisdictions to decide if they would allow cannabis sales in stores.
Vobořil also expressed an interest in the Spanish ‘social club’ model which is also being adopted by the likes of Germany.
In February we received the news that cannabis regulation in Czechia was to centre around 3 pillars: homegrowing, cannabis social clubs and the commercial market. Adopting such an approach would allow the country to abide by international law, whilst committing to home cultivation and generating a new source of income for the state.
At the time, Czech cannabis activist and journalist, Lukas Hurt, expected that all 3 pillars were likely to be subject to regulation and control by state authorities. As such, it seemed reasonable to expect elements such as the registration of home growers, licensing of clubs and the taxation of commercial activities.
Fast forward two months to April and we received a first look at the proposed legislation and its key points. In its draft form, the legislation proposed a 5g a day consumption limit, as well as a compulsory register of consumers. Growers and sellers would also have to pay annual tax and licensing fees, similar to those imposed on cigarettes and alcohol. It was reported in Cannabis Health News that growing hemp on large areas of land could cost hundreds of thousands of crowns, and that an independent shop would have to pay tax starting at 50,000 crowns a year.
As well as this, consumers would only be able to purchase cannabis from specialised shops and a total ban on the advertising of cannabis was also in the works.
While we’re still waiting on the official unveiling of the proposal, there seems to be some concern that European law may also be a sticking point for Czechia and its cannabis reform.
In August, Business of Cannabis reported that the Schengen Agreement, which was introduced in 1995 to permit free movement across EU member states, may now be Czechia’s biggest obstacle. According to the agreement, non-medical cannabis products are classed as ‘goods’, and so are subject to the rules of the internal market. This means that they should be afforded unhindered trade across borders.
However, under article 36 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union, individual states may block imports. This means that neighbouring states which prohibit the sale of cannabis may be in a position to block imports coming through their country into Czechia.
Despite this, Jindřich Vobořil is pushing ahead with cannabis legalisation with plans to incorporate a commercial market even though it may mean that Czechia is called before the European Court of Justice (ECJ). To overcome these challenges, Czechia wishes to amend the Schengen Agreement, with the hope that the 2024 European Elections result in a more liberal European Commission.
Should the country be called to the ECJ, the process would be a lengthy one, spanning across a few years. Vobořil views that once the court reaches its decision, Czechia’s cannabis industry ‘will have established itself and will not be able to be shut down’.
Switzerland is another European country which is in the ‘pilot program’ phase of their journey to cannabis legalisation. On 1st August 2022, the country introduced an amendment to its Narcotics Act which meant that patients would be able to access medical cannabis prescriptions via their medical practitioners, rather than having to request permission from the Switzerland Federal Office of Public Health. The amendment also allowed for the exportation of medical cannabis.
In January 2023, Switzerland launched its ‘Weed Care’ pilot program, allowing selected participants to buy recreational cannabis from various pharmacies within the Swiss city of Basel. The two and a half year project is being jointly carried out by the University of Basel, University Psychiatric Clinics and the Basel-Stadt Health Department, with the aim of understanding how legalisation could work.
During the study, participants are asked about their consumption habits, as well as their physical and mental health. Over the course of the study, participants have access to six cannabis products, including two hashish and four cannabis flower. Individuals are closely monitored during the program and are prohibited from sharing cannabis with anyone outside of the study.
In August, Switzerland announced the launch of its second pilot project – ZüriCan, which is set to last for 3 years. Similar to the ‘Weed Care’ program, participants are permitted to buy controlled cannabis products from selected dispensaries, with the study set within the city of Zurich.
The study involves over 2,100 participants and 21 dispensary outlets, including pharmacies, social clubs and a drug information centre. Again, the pilot is focused on gathering important information which can be used to inform cannabis regulation further down the line.
As it currently stands, there are three more pilot studies planned for the cities of Bern, Biel and Lucerne which are set to launch later this year.
It’s clear that Switzerland is taking a careful but cautious evidence-based approach to cannabis reform by conducting a number of pilots. This would indicate that the country is on a good trajectory, but it is less clear cut how close they are to achieving legalisation.
As we reported last week, it appears that Belgium could be the latest European country on their way to cannabis legalisation. The Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Economy and Employment, Pierre-Yves Dermagne recently declared that cannabis legalisation was “common sense”, and that it “no longer made sense” to criminalise adult cannabis users.
From Dermagne’s point of view, introducing cannabis reform would allow the state to focus on issues which have a bigger impact on society and allow them to target police resources more effectively. It would appear that the financial incentives also played a part in these remarks, with legalisation estimated to potentially generate around €660m a year.
The Deputy Prime Minister has stated he keeps a close eye on the reform efforts of neighbouring countries, but is particularly interested in the German approach which features a firm public health approach and the introduction of Cannabis Social Clubs.
Although Dermagne is set to face some opposition to his remarks, his commitment to reform should become clear over the coming months.
And last but not least, Luxembourg legalised home cultivation and decreased penalties for possession in the Summer, making it the second EU country to do so.
In June, Luxembourg’s parliament passed the legalisation bill, with the final procedural step being taken in July. Under the new rules, adults may grow up to 4 plants in a secure location in their private residence, providing they aren’t visible from public roads.
As well as this, possession of up to 3g of cannabis has been decriminalised and those caught in possession will face reduced penalties. Personal consumption will be permitted so long as it is in private, although consumption in public or in front of minors will not.
Following this, Luxembourg plans to explore routes towards a commercial cannabis market subject to state regulation, and plans to implement points of sale in the future.
This piece was written by Volteface Content and Media Officer Megan Townsend. She is particularly interested in the reform of drug legislation, subcultural drug use and harm reduction initiatives. She also has an MA in Criminology from Birmingham City University. Tweets @megant2799.