Recreational Cannabis legalisation in Europe: Where Are We Now?

Part 2 of Volteface's survey of European cannabis laws in 2022...

by Monica Richards

Referred to as the ‘green wave’, the cannabis sector is undeniably on the rise across Europe, with policy changes in both the medicinal and recreational spheres. BSDA predicts that global cannabis sales will increase by 22 percent in 2022, and then surpass $61 billion in 2026. 

With this in mind cannabis legalisation both recreational and medical could yet have a huge role to play in driving post-pandemic economic recovery across the continent. 

Let’s take a look at the state of play of recreational cannabis across Europe as it is in 2022. 


🇬🇧United Kingdom:Khan’s London decriminalisation pilot 

In early 2022, London Mayor Sadiq Khan called for a pilot scheme that would decriminalise cannabis possession in boroughs such as Lewisham, Greenwich, and Bexley. Instead of being arrested, those caught possessing small quantities of cannabis would be offered courses and counselling. Whether this pilot scheme is successful and expands is yet to be seen; done correctly, this scheme could yield significant results in reducing first-time crimes and reoffending incidents. UCL researchers – working in partnership with the London Drugs Commission – ought to consider racial prejudices and discrimination that currently plagues MET police operations if this scheme is to be beneficial. This is an unprecedented step towards the decriminalisation of recreational cannabis usage in the UK.


Liz Truss ramifications

Boris Johnson’s replacement could certainly alter the UK’s direction that cannabis legalisation takes in forthcoming years. Volteface’s Jay Jackson recently outlined what all of the Tory candidates’ stances were on drug policy, including Liz Truss’s stance on cannabis -which is fair to say is a confusing one. Having been embroiled in rows about Bermuda’s plans to legalise cannabis recreationally during her time as Foreign Sec, and only weeks into being PM being caught up in a row with Home Secretary Suella Braverman over cannabis reclassification, who knows where the politics of this will go next! For a more detailed discussion about prospects for drug policy reform under a Liz Truss government, be sure to listen to our podcast on the just that below



🇩🇪Germany: Germany set to legalise recreational cannabis by 2023

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his coalition partners have pledged the rollout of legalising and commercialising adult-use recreational cannabis. He has stated that their goal is to “clear legal and regulatory hurdles within one to two years” which is highly ambitious. Such a move would breach both the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the EU ruling on member states preventing the sale of cannabis. Several countries including Canada have breached the UN convention already by legalising recreational usage. A four-year trial period will see the distribution of cannabis via licensed shops, placing them in front of the Netherlands which is yet to legalise recreational cannabis sales. According to Demecan’s von der Groeben, Germany’s likely to “see an approval of the new law in 2023”. 


🇪🇸Spain: Cannabis clubs – echoing the Dutch model

Spanish cannabis clubs spotlight the legal grey area that it sits within. Recreational usage is decriminalised and permitted in private spaces, including the cultivation of a small number of cannabis plants if they are not visible from outside. There are roughly 700 clubs across Spain, with many requiring membership fees or exclusive invites to join. Given that supply and distribution remain illegal, this approach echoes the Dutch model. 


🇲🇹MaltaFirst European country to approve the legalisation of recreational cannabis

December 2021 marked the date when Malta became the first European country to approve the legalisation of adult-use recreational cannabis, taking the lead from Germany and the Netherlands. It has pioneered and introduced laws to regulate the personal use of cannabis, allowing up to 50 grams of marijuana to be stored at home and 7 grams possessed outside. Smoking in public spaces or in front of children remains illegal.

Citizens can create cannabis social clubs similar to those in Spain; these non-profit organisations can distribute cannabis products among members. It is currently unclear how these clubs will be structured. 

PM Robert Abela from Malta’s Labour Party said: “We are legislating to address a problem, with a harm reduction approach by regulating the sector so that people don’t have to resort to the black market.


🇱🇺Luxembourg: Legal production and supply of recreational cannabis approved

Luxembourg’s current reliance on imports is among a group of factors encouraging the approval of a bill in 2022, which establishes the legal production and supply of cannabis domestically. This will allow for greater quality assurance and divert resources away from illicit markets. It is believed that the government will utilise revenues garnered from cannabis sales for “prevention, education and healthcare, and [invest] in the field of addiction”. This is not the first time that Luxembourg has pledged cannabis legalisation. 

Similar to Malta and Spain, Luxembourg allowed the home cultivation and private consumption of cannabis in 2021. Luxembourgers are allowed to grow four cannabis plants per household, with public usage being prohibited. Possession of over 3 grams in public is considered as intent to supply, as outlined by Justice Minister Sam Tanson. Trading in seeds will be permitted with no limit on THC quantities. Seeds can be bought online, imported, or in-store. 


🇳🇱Netherlands: Amsterdam’s Mayor Femke seeks to ban ‘cannatourism’ – but council disagrees.

Cannabis is decriminalised in the Netherlands, but it is certainly not legal. Current legislation permits coffee shops to sell cannabis under five grams for personal use, and the growing of up to 5 plants at home (whilst illegal) has been decriminalised by the police. Similar to Malta, Luxembourg, and Spain, public usage is not permitted. Coffee shop owners typically source their products from cartels within the illicit market. Dutch punk rock band Heideroosjes lyrics sum it up: “A coffee shop can sell weed / But where it comes from, don’t ask how“.

Most surprisingly has been the call against ‘cannatourism’ by Amsterdam’s mayor, Femke Halsema: “What we do not welcome is people who come here on a vacation from morals.” Femke asked city councils in 2021 to ban coffee shops from selling to tourists in a bid to soothe locals who have continually complained about the volume and behaviour of tourists on a “moral vacation”. The proposed changes will introduce a resident criterion, a phased start to local regulation, and a ‘coffee shop quality mark’ which will focus on their supply and distribution chains. Predictably, this sparked significant controversy with tourists saying that they would no longer visit Amsterdam; local food businesses and coffee shop owners fearing long-term cash flow problems and closures. Femke still plans to introduce these changes, despite a white paper with “alternative proposals” being submitted by cannabis purveyors Barney’s, Best Friends, and Sensi Seeds. 

Femke’s proposal echoes similar calls in 2012. Eberhard van der Laan – Amsterdam’s mayor in 2012 – rejected this, as it “would lead to more robberies, quarrels about fake drugs, and no control of the quality of drugs on the market – everything we have worked towards would be lost to misery”. 

UPDATE: these plans have recently been voted AGAINST by the city council of Amsterdam, and so are unlikely to be enacted  any time soon.


Experimenting with recreational legalisation

Currently, only the use of cannabis and not the possession of cannabis are technically decriminalised. Though in practice there’s an obvious flaw in this logic. Pilot projects are in place to regulate limited forms of recreational cannabis in the Netherlands and Switzerland. This involves the legal production and sale in coffee shops in 10 municipalities, creating a “closed cannabis chain”. The experiment has been delayed to 2023, and is certainly one to watch. “The 2017 coalition agreement included a pledge to conduct an experiment with the regulated cultivation and sale of cannabis. The aim of the experiment is to ascertain whether or not it is possible to regulate a quality-controlled supply of cannabis to coffee shops and to study the effects of a regulated supply chain on crime, safety, public nuisance and public health.” – NL Government


🇮🇹Italy: Landmark decriminalisation bill introduced

Recently in June 2022, a cannabis decriminalisation bill reached the Chamber of Deputies, expected to move to the upper parliamentary Senate in September. The bill includes: reducing prison sentences for small-scale cannabis distribution, penalties being decided on individual bases, and permitting four cannabis plants to be home-grown for personal use. 

This follows a failed attempt to legalise cannabis back in February, where critics argued that courts had “stifled the democratic process after a petition gained 630,000 signatures”. A study was conducted on 106 Italian provinces between 2016-2018. It demonstrated that there was a substantial substitution effect, furthering their self-medication hypothesis. The substitution effect is a microeconomic term relating to the effect of a good’s price changing and the quantity demanded by consumers. The effect was strongly noted in this study between cannabis-based products and a reduction in the use of prescription drugs such as anxiolytics, sedatives, opioids, antidepressants, and antipsychotics. 


🇨🇭Switzerland: Recreational trials to start in Basel – a shift towards legalisation

The University of Geneva estimated that 56 tonnes of cannabis are consumed annually in Switzerland, corresponding to 750,000 daily joints. Based on this demand, they calculated that the Swiss market for recreational cannabis could yield annual revenues of 582 million CHF (€594.35m) including imports. Another study in 2020 valued the market to be worth $520 million (€508.54m). 

A pilot project in Basel will explore the regulated sale of cannabis to local pharmacies, similarly to the Netherlands. The Federal Office for Public Health in partnership with the University of Basel will conduct a trial, acknowledging the current 220,000 regular Swiss cannabis consumers. This scheme could be expanded to Zurich, Geneva, and Bern whose local authorities have applied to roll out similar trials. The regulated sale of cannabis through local pharmacies will be limited to 400 adult participants and is due to begin in September 2022.


🇩🇰Denmark: Folketinget: Copenhagen’s 5-year recreational cannabis pilot scheme

Proposed by the City of Copenhagen, Denmark is poised to run a 5-year pilot scheme whereby cannabis sales are legalised and dispensed at state-controlled outlets such as pharmacies. This would only be for adult residents in Copenhagen municipalities. According to GCI, the bill would legalise and permit “Danish citizens to purchase, possess, grow and consume cannabis for personal use”, making it a novel and landmark move in Scandinavia. The government’s main drive for trialling this system is due to the steady increase in cannabis consumption despite it being illegal: “Statistics indicate that in 2020, 41% of young people had smoked cannabis, with consumption among 16-44 year olds doubling since the mid-1990s”. 


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