Are Europeans ready for adult-use cannabis legalization?

According to a public opinion poll released earlier this month by cannabis-focused advisory firm Hanway Associates, the answer is yes.

The poll, conducted in partnership with Curaleaf, Cansativa and Ince, revealed that 55% of those surveyed support regulated adult-use sales.

While some European countries have well-established medical cannabis markets within their borders, legal cannabis frameworks remain fragmented from country to country.

Malta became the first European country to legalize adult-use cannabis in December 2021 when its parliament approved legislation that allows adults 18 and older to cultivate up to four plants and possess up to 7 grams of cannabis.

Luxembourg is also considering legislation that would allow adults 18 and older to grow up to four plants at home for personal use, and Germany’s new coalition has signaled support for adult-use cannabis legalization.

The uptick in cannabis policy reform efforts across Europe inspired Hanway Associates’ poll to gauge how Europeans feel about adult-use legalization, Charlotte Bowyer, the firm’s head of advisory, told Cannabis Business Times.

“We wanted to see what Europeans actually thought about legalization, which is why we commissioned a poll and got some metrics across the key eight European markets to have a look at what Europeans are actually thinking about it,” Bowyer said.

The poll is based on a nationally representative sample of 9,043 adults aged 18 and older across France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland and the UK, with the survey being conducted between Feb. 24 and March 14.

“Each country does its own polls, but each one is going to have slightly different phrasing and ask at different times of the year,” Bowyer said. “We want something to serve as a benchmark. We ask the same questions in each market and [we will] just repeat those on an annal basis. If we’ve got a good benchmark, we can actually see it evolving.”

The results, released April 7, not only found that more than half of Europeans support legal cannabis sales to adults 18 and older, but also revealed that 30% of respondents are interested in trying legal cannabis, highlighting a large—and mostly untapped—potential market.

“I think what was quite interesting when we looked at this is that across the board, you’re actually seeing Europeans in favor of cannabis legalization,” Bowyer said. “You’re definitely seeing support larger than opposition across every market.”

Italians are the most enthusiastic about legalization, according to the report, with 60% of respondents in support of legal, government-regulated sales of cannabis products to adults 18 and older.

The poll found 59% support in Portugal, 58% in Switzerland, 56% in Spain, 55% in the UK, 52% in France, 50% in Germany and 47% in the Netherlands.

“I think the markets most in favor of reform that jumped out were Italy and Portugal,” Bowyer said. “They’ve got about 60% supporting in favor of legal, government-regulated sales and some of the lowest opposition rates, as well.”

The results from France and the Netherlands surprised Bowyer.

“When you dive into what the French think about this, there’s more reticence and more fear about cannabis legalization, which is surprising because France has one of the highest rates of consumption in Europe,” she said. “I think another one that was quite interesting for us is the Netherlands polled pretty low when you asked them, ‘Are you in favor of legal cannabis reforms?’ We expected that to be really high because they’ve had the Dutch coffeeshop model for so long now, and they’re also currently taking steps to legalize parts of that supply chain in certain regions of the Netherlands. … We think one of the reasons is because they’ve had these coffeeshops for so long and the coffeeshop model has attracted quite a lot of tourism in places like Amsterdam, and that’s had negative effects with often Brits going over and behaving really rowdy.”

Regulated stores are the most popular model for cannabis legalization in Europe, according to the report, with 48% in favor.

Home grow is less popular, with 35% support, and social clubs ranked the lowest, with 32% support.

“I think that plays into the view that people who are in favor of legalization didn’t necessarily want cannabis to be front and center in their face,” Bowyer said. “They didn’t want the smell of cannabis or cannabis plants in their backyard.”

When asked which benefits Europeans see to legalization, 51% said policy reform would take cannabis out of the illicit market. The next highest response, at 36%, was that legalization would reduce the use of more harmful illegal drugs.

“Europeans are in favor of regulation and making sure things are controlled and that they know their products are safe, that the dosing is correct and that it’s been tested,” Bowyer said. “And I think that explains why there’s that support for the government-regulated stores, maybe more than the DIY grows or social clubs.”

Top concerns about legalization include an increase in driving under the influence of cannabis, at 42%, and youth cannabis use, at 40%.

“Tax revenue, an economic boost and jobs were something that 40% of respondents identified, as well, as a key concern or a key benefit [of legalization],” Bowyer said. “People were definitely saying they wanted regulated products and knowing the dosage and the safety—that was something that polled highly. I think this idea of taking it away from the black market and having more control where it’s taxable is something that’s being supported by Europeans.”

The poll revealed support for not only taxing adult-use cannabis sales, but also for using the tax revenue generated to fund public services such as cannabis education and drug treatment programs, Bowyer added.

Europeans also signaled support for THC limits, she said, with 51% of respondents in favor of a regulated cannabis program with potency restrictions.

“I think Europeans aren’t as used to some of the products in places like North America yet,” Bowyer said. “We haven’t really had these types of products widely available in Europe, so we haven’t grappled with what exactly that could mean. I think [THC] restrictions per piece for edibles and the like will be popular in Europe to help shape a responsible industry and to mitigate the risk of possible overconsumption and things like that.”

The poll also revealed another aspect of cannabis legalization that Europeans are not as familiar with as North Americans: social equity.

“When we asked people, ‘Do you think legalization is good because it will lead to less discrimination against marginalized communities?’ That’s not something that polled very highly,” Bowyer said. “I think 17 percent of Europeans said that yeah, they think that’s a benefit. That number doesn’t really change a lot between markets. I think the lowest was 11 percent, and that was in the Netherlands, and the highest was 27 percent, and that’s in Switzerland. So, it’s not something that Europeans are ranking very highly.”

This revelation left the Hanway Associates team wondering if the phrasing of the question skewed the results.

“It doesn’t show us whether they don’t think [social equity is] a benefit [of legalization] because they don’t think legalization will help or because they don’t think it’s an issue in the first place,” Bowyer said. “Those are slightly different issues, and we don’t know exactly which of those two people are saying.”

The social equity conversation may simply be more advanced in U.S. cannabis markets than it is in European markets, she added.

“I think the rate of mass incarceration you have in the U.S. is more prevalent and I think the racial dynamics are very, very clear and very explicit,” Bowyer said. “I think in Europe, they can be a bit muddier and they’re not as clear or as obvious. In the UK, we have less people imprisoned for cannabis offenses, but we have a huge amount of people with records with cannabis offenses. That can have its problems, but it’s not as obvious and it’s not as tangible as it can be in the U.S. Certainly, it’s not a conversation that’s as developed in Europe.”

Bowyer foresees social equity becoming a more prominent issue in Europe as cannabis policy reform evolves, however.

“It’s something that we need to push on,” she said.

As more countries consider legalization, Bowyer said European cannabis markets will likely mirror Canada’s, with plain packaging, product warning labels and restrictions on advertising baked into the regulations.

“I think it’s going to become a bit more liberalized with time as people become more comfortable with it, but I think that’s probably the starting point in terms of what’s feasible,” she said. “I think having Canada as a state that’s federally legalized is a good framework to look at. Obviously, it’s a bit more piecemeal in the U.S. with the state-level regulations, so I think it’s easier for governments to look at Canada as a country that’s legalized as a benchmark.”

As the legalization conversation continues to evolve, Hanway Associates would like to conduct its poll annually to track how European attitudes on cannabis change over time. Bowyer said the survey may start delving deeper into the why and how of cannabis legalization as time goes on, as well.

Overall, Bowyer said the Hanway Associates team was pleasantly surprised with the results of the poll.

When it comes to cannabis legalization, Bowyer said opinions are generally divided into thirds with one-third in support, one-third opposed and one-third unsure or unwilling to provide an opinion.

“But when you see all these numbers, we’re definitely seeing a larger proportion,” she said. “It’s more like 40 percent or 50 percent of people who are in favor of legalization. We’re still seeing a third in opposition, 20 percent or 30 percent in opposition, but I think we’re slowly getting people on the other side. So, it looks positive in terms of progress over the past couple of years. We’re on this upward trajectory.”

This upward trajectory could in turn convince European leaders that the time is right for legalization—something that they may not have previously been willing to admit.

“I think it captures a good baseline, suggesting that cannabis legalization is a lot more popular in Europe than maybe the politicians are willing to put their mouth behind,” Bowyer said. “I think you won’t see many politicians taking a stance in it, and if they do, they’ll say, ‘No, no, no, we’re not supportive. The time’s not right.’ But I think these numbers across these different markets show that there is support here and I think it is politically feasible now. The ball is in the court of politicians to actually make this happen and obviously for us to advocate for that to happen.”