Here is the banner news: Germany, Europe’s largest economy (and the world’s fourth largest), is moving forward on full cannabis legalization. It is also not the only country in Europe to do so.
Here is the catch: Full legalization and market start is not going to be fast, or easy, anywhere. This includes Deutschland, where there has been an unsurprising temporary backlash from conservative politicians, mostly from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and all hailing from Bavaria—or as it is referred to here—the Texas of Germany.
Yet despite all the potential hurdles, the messaging coming from Berlin right now is that while it will be tricky, recreational cannabis reform is certainly feasible. And it will happen, sooner rather than later.
The Largest Issues
The biggest problem European countries face is moving forward on a sovereign level while also updating EU regulations about the same. The EU as a region is committed to complying with international law, generally. This includes the mandates on cannabis set out in both the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances.
The reason this has not been as much of an issue before is simple. EU countries, starting with Germany, began to allow medical use by integrating cannabis as a narcotic into the pharmaceutical sector. Beyond this, in 2020, the EU changed the classification of CBD to a non-narcotic compound. Yet this regulatory change is not fully implemented in every EU country. Indeed, in most, CBD is still treated as a narcotic by domestic regulators who have not updated country law to match the EU mandate. This means that, for example, the German CBD market is thriving, but importing hemp over the border from other European countries is still difficult unless one has a pharmaceutical license. CBD businesses are also facing criminal prosecution in the country. Beyond this, discussions about Novel Food regulation hang over the entire conversation.
However, recreational cannabis reform will trigger a full reclassification of the plant—of both the low- and high-THC variety and further at a regional level. It will also force those countries who have lagged on the CBD discussion (including Germany) to update their national narcotics acts.
Such a development will be in line with the wishes of the United Nations. The UN has kicked the cannabis can down the road repeatedly. The last time the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs met to discuss cannabis, they removed cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 Convention and left individual countries and regions to their own devices on proceeding with further reform.
Developments in Germany
The German government has steadily proceeded with plans to introduce draft legislation by either the end of 2022 or the beginning of next year. Hearings were held in June. Germany also joined Luxembourg and Malta in multilateral talks to discuss how to reform EU law and address the incongruencies of recreational reform with current international treaties banning the use of the plant, starting with regional regulation.
As usual, the politicians are lagging the populace—but interestingly, on this issue at this point, not by much. According to a recent poll by Ipsos, 61% of the general population supports recreational reform—a sharp reversal from just five years ago when 63% of Germans surveyed by Forsa were still against full legalization.
Federal medical reform has certainly made its mark. Germany legalized the medical use of cannabis in the spring of 2017 and mandated that public health insurers (who cover 90% of the population) cover reimbursement of medical cannabis prescriptions. While there are now tens of thousands of patients who receive medical cannabis, gaining approval is still very hard and time consuming. So much so that in September, the German Society of Pain Doctors entered into a trial agreement with one of the nation’s largest insurers—AOK—to begin a streamlined approvals process in one state in Germany.
The entire issue of recreational reform, however, has remained a political football, to a certain extent. The ousted Christian Democratic Union of Germany/Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CDU/CSU) has seen this (falsely) as a campaign issue against the current government. The party recently commissioned Bundestag (German Parliament) lawyers to “examine” current EU law as it pertains to cannabis use, which unsurprisingly came down against further reform. Despite the hullabaloo, however, it is clear that even they cannot stop the building momentum.
In response, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) of Germany launched its own counter-offensive on Instagram to answer many of the issues raised in the interim. The general consensus of the current government is that German recreational reform will not violate international law either of the EU or global kind. They have also already broadly hinted at what reform is likely to look like. Dispensaries will be allowed, as will limited home grow. Online sales will continue to be forbidden. Both flower and edibles will probably be allowed. And recreational cannabis will be both sourced domestically and over international borders (probably initially only with GMP certification).
Luxembourg and Malta
The other two member states of the EU who have moved forward on a limited level of reform have clearly been waiting for Germany to make the first moves. Both countries have now legalized home grow as an intermediary step.
On Malta, licensed medical cultivation is permitted. In Luxembourg, the current government promised recreational reform within five years of when it first came to power in 2018. That said, progress has repeatedly stalled, in part because of concerns of how to implement it in a way that is not out of step with its EU neighbors.
Other EU Countries
There are several countries who are poised to follow in the footsteps of this tripartite of EU countries—beyond Holland. The Dutch experiment is widely discounted still across Europe, even though the country has now moved to regulate the cultivation of cannabis bound for coffee shops on a federal basis. This is still described as an “experiment” largely because shops in the largest cities are still exempted from this program, and because all legalization discussions in Europe, including Switzerland, seem to all be labeled this way. That said, it is very clear to everyone that the cannabis horse has left the barn, never to return.
One of the more interesting developments in the past month is that the Czech Republic has announced its own plans to legalize recreational use. Further, the country has invited other EU countries to collaborate with it on an international level—meaning it will probably be the next country to join the multinational coalition formed by the leading three countries.
Both Portugal and Italy will almost certainly join this multilateral coalition in the near future. Portugal is known for its liberal drug policy, generally, and has been on the cusp of initiating legalization legislation for several years. Beyond that, cannabis companies looking to establish cultivation and even extraction footprints in Europe have flocked to the country in the meantime, starting with Tilray.
Italy, which also has a medical cultivation program underway, and has circled around the entire conversation of home grow for at least the last two years, may also follow closely behind.
Der Schweiz is, as of the middle of September 2022, embarking on the continent’s first recreational program of note in large part because it is not a member of the EU. This is currently a trial, governed by canton (Swiss states). Reform appears to be coming fastest in German-speaking parts of the country. This may also influence discussions on the other side of the German border as well as the third member of the DACH trading alliance, alongside Switzerland and Austria.
What is most interesting about the Swiss experiment is that regulators have waived both EU-GMP (pharma-grade) certification for high-THC cannabis as well as Novel Food—a regulation that has hampered the growth of the CBD industry across Europe for the past several years.
If there is an analogy to be made, it is that Europe is at a green tipping point like the U.S. circa 2012, except on a federal and international level. How fast the balls start rolling on a country-by-country basis is one thing. Regional reform, however, is also clearly in the cards. And in the process, the planet is witnessing the birth of one of the most valuable regional cannabis markets in the world.
Marguerite Arnold is an American-German journalist, consultant and entrepreneur in the legal European cannabis industry based in Frankfurt, Germany. She is also the author of two books on global cannabis reform.