It is time for drug professionals, including the harm reduction community, to have a say about the upcoming regulation of the European cannabis market. If not, we miss an important historical opportunity to shape the future.
I have just read the 5th European Cannabis Report from Prohibition Partners, a think tank on the legal cannabis industry. It is an interesting read indeed, and an eye-opening one. There are revolutionary changes occurring in European cannabis policies that are not always visible, even for professionals working in the field of harm reduction. That is partly because Europe, despite all its joint institutions, is still so fragmented in terms of language, culture, and politics. Sometimes it is difficult to connect the dots. And partly because drug professionals traditionally focus on injecting drug use, opiates, and stimulants, where most of the public health harms concentrate. Meanwhile, they can tend to forget that the most popular illicit drug in Europe is still cannabis – and policies regulating it are changing rapidly.
A number of countries have introduced new legal regulation schemes for medical cannabis, established new cannabis agencies, and created legal channels to supply the market in recent years. An initiative running in the UK, for example, could see up to 20,000 patients given medical cannabis over a two-year period, with the aim of building the largest body of evidence on cannabis as a medicine in the region. Ireland has launched a pilot Medical Cannabis Access Program. France granted approval for a two-year trial to help doctors to understand medical cannabis. Germany, the biggest market, imported more than 6,7 tonnes of legal cannabis last year – and this amount is likely to grow multiple times in the following years. Europe is still dependent on imported cannabis but it is likely to change in the next couple of years, with more and more cannabis grown domestically. Medical cannabis reform is not only under way in western Europe but in the eastern part of the region as well: in countries where you would not expect it, like North Macedonia or Poland.
If you think that the reform will stop at medical cannabis, you are wrong. Luxembourg has announced that it will be the first European country to make cannabis legal. Prohibition Partners accurately points out that this will likely have a domino effect: neighbouring countries will relax their own policies. Cannabis reform is gaining speed in other countries too – again, not only in the west. I was surprised to learn that a new bill was introduced to the Croatian parliament recently about regulating the cannabis market. Even though it may be years before the first European countries legalise the recreational market, it is now obvious that it is just a question of time.
Leading cannabis companies from North America are now eyeing the lucrative European market. It seems there is a slowdown in the growth of the North American market, so now those companies are trying to expand into the international market. One of the reasons why the US industry is lobbying so hard for federal legalisation in the US is to be able to do so directly, not only through Canadian companies. The European market can give them more profit than any other market in the world: it is estimated to be worth potentially up to €123 billion by 2028. They invested big money in research, marketing, and lobbying with the goal to bring the same commercialised cannabis market to Europe that we see in the US and in Canada. A European activist aptly called it “the green gold fever”.
The first step is medical use, the second is the recreational market. This recipe worked in the US and it will probably work sooner or later in Europe too, even though the political system is different. There is a systemic inertia in EU institutions and it is not likely that reform will come from Brussels – it will come at the national and local level. Like the Luxembourg initiative, or the recent Dutch and Swiss experimentation with pilot projects for the legal cultivation and distribution of cannabis in certain cities.
But does Europe really want American companies to shape its legal cannabis market? Is the American commercialised model the only viable option for us?
Many activists say that there are alternatives to explore. There was a huge conference on cannabis reform in Madrid this February, to discuss future possibilities. The difference between the positions taken by big companies and the associations of patients and grassroots activists was very visible: the former wants to see a Canadian-style model, with standardised and trackable commercial products, whilst the latter stands for a Uruguayan model, where people are able to grow their own cannabis or create cannabis social clubs (potentially to grow together with agricultural communities in impoverished rural regions, like the Rasquera plan in Catalonia). As the Transnational Institute pointed out, it would also be important to give a chance for traditional cannabis-growing countries to supply the European markets, such as Morocco.
I’m not saying that American companies are inherently bad and that governments should ban them from entering the market, but the commercialised North American model can be criticised from many aspects of social equality, public health, and sustainability that are worth our consideration. We can learn from the mistakes they made with overregulation and lack of involvement of local communities. Europe must find its own way to regulate this market, combining the best elements from different models.
Unfortunately we don’t see much of these discussions at professional communities and events. At the Lisbon Addictions conference last year there was a moderated debate on cannabis legalisation. It was great to have this debate, but at the same time it was not a very balanced one, and its framing was quite misguided. It posed the old question of whether to make cannabis legal or not. I think history has transcended this formulation of the question. The real debate is now not a black-and-white one, legalisation vs prohibition. What we should ask now is rather HOW to regulate the cannabis market. And there are more than fifty shades of grey here.
If the professional community is still stuck on the old questions it risks being left behind by history and having no say in the upcoming regulation of the market. That would be a mistake, even for those who oppose any kind of reform on principle. It is also a common position for academics and professionals to shy away from the debate because they want to avoid taking “political” positions. But without the input of professionals and activists working in harm reduction, treatment, and prevention, concern for public health and social equality will not stand at the forefront of reformed cannabis policies.