What’s Next for Cannabis in Europe? EU Agency Hosts Panel on National Reforms

Fri, Sep 22
Key Points
  • European countries such as Malta, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Czechia have taken different approaches to cannabis reform, with a focus on harm reduction and public health.
  • Malta has allowed adults to grow their own cannabis or join non-profit clubs, with a strong emphasis on grassroots ownership and a strictly regulated market.
  • Germany is in the process of passing legislation that will legalize home cultivation and non-profit clubs, with plans to establish a regulated system for sales.
  • The Netherlands is conducting a pilot project to test a regulated supply chain for cannabis in select cities, aiming to address issues related to illegal production and supply to coffee shops.

What do Malta, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Czechia have in common? All of these European countries have allowed, or are planning to allow, cannabis for all adults.

But they haven’t taken similar paths, so the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), a decentralized EU agency that provides information on drugs to policymakers, hosted a conversation last week on changing cannabis laws across the continent.

“It’s certainly one of the top level policy issues everywhere in the world, but in particular in Europe, too,” said EMCDDA Director Alexis Goosdeel, at the start of the meeting. He spoke briefly about how the EMCDDA will soon be renamed the European Union Drugs Agency and added that cannabis “will be one of our priority areas.”

Countries in Europe have taken a starkly different approach to reform than what has unfolded in the U.S. There, the focus has been on non-commercial approaches, or on closely monitored pilot projects that allow for assessment and recalibration.

First up to present, with a focus on lessons learned, was Leonid McKay, the executive chair of Malta’s Authority for the Responsible Use of Cannabis (ARUC). In late 2021, Malta became the first country in Europe to move to allow adults to grow their own cannabis, or to join non-profit clubs to do so.

“Our reform is not about the maximization of profits. Our reform is not about a new economic niche,” he said. “Our focus is purely on public health and harm reduction. In Malta, we strongly believe that a full-blown commercialized market goes against the very principles of harm reduction.”

Malta’s aim, he said, is primarily to provide cannabis consumers with a regulated alternative to the illegal market. The non-profit clubs, which have yet to open, will be called Cannabis Harm Reduction Associations. To keep things “grassroots,” they will be limited to 500 members, and each member will have equal ownership.

“This is not about shareholders. This is not about owners of a company. This is about having a members-based association who are cultivating collectively for their own personal use,” he said. “We strongly object to the so-called monopolies. So we are not promoting big associations to take control of the cannabis reform.”

These clubs are not allowed to do any marketing, and, at the start, they can only sell cannabis flowers to members. Adults between the ages of 18 and 21 can only buy cannabis with 18% THC or less, while adults 21 and older will not have THC cap limits on products. Tourists will not be allowed to participate.

Harm reduction training is required for these clubs, and McKay said the first training is scheduled for November. The ARUC, he said, has conducted two on-site inspections, and will likely approve the first club to open by year’s end.

Next up was Esther Neumeier, the head of Germany’s Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, and the EMCDDA’s point person for Germany.

Germany has embarked upon a two-phased plan to legalize cannabis for adults, as Cannabis Wire has reported. Lawmakers are expected to pass a bill this year that will allow for home cultivation and non-profit clubs, similar to Malta’s approach. Next, they plan to draft a bill in the coming months to create a regulated system for sales. 

Neumeier said that Germany’s approach is also focused, at its core, on harm reduction.

“It’s really about just saying, okay, we have a lot of cannabis users, and we need to do better by them, and also we need to protect young people,” she said.

As a scientist, Neumeier’s focus has been to establish a baseline against which the successes and failures of the country’s legalization approach can be measured. And Germany’s size – it will be the most populous country to legalize cannabis when it happens – presents both challenges and opportunities. 

“We’re a big country. And every federal state is governed by a different government, by a different coalition. So we can kind of expect them to differ in how they interpret these regulations and how they enforce them,” she said, referencing the 16 different states in Germany. “From a scientific viewpoint, it’s quite interesting because it means that we will have something like control groups to look at and see whether it actually makes a difference or not in the indicators that we will have.”

Next up was Margriet van Laar, the drugs lead at the Netherlands Institute of Mental Health and Addiction (Trimbos Instituut), and the EMCDDA’s point person for the Netherlands.

While cannabis sales have long been tolerated at so-called coffee shops in the country, they were never actually legal, and the supply is totally unregulated. As Cannabis Wire reported in 2019, the government has embarked upon a pilot project that will test a regulated supply chain in several cities by selecting growers that will work with existing coffee shops.

van Laar, who is part of a consortium that will evaluate the pilot project, estimates that there are 570 coffee shops in the country, many of which are located in Amsterdam. These establishments, she said, are subject to what is called “toleration criteria.” For example, they cannot advertise, sell hard drugs, cause a nuisance, sell to minors, or sell in large quantities, she said. 

“So, in fact, we can say that to some extent the front door is more or less regulated,” she said. “However, there is a dilemma because the back door, the production of cannabis and supply of cannabis to the coffee shops, is illegal, and this has created quite some problems for public order and safety because of illicit cannabis cultivation and related crime.”

A key component of the pilot project is the research that will be carried out in tandem. Participating localities will be compared to those that are not part of the pilot. van Laar and others will be looking at things like sales volume and pricing, to ensure that high prices don’t drive people to illegal sources, and at whether regulated cultivation effectively prevents diversion. 

The first two localities in the Netherlands, Breda and Tilburg, will kick off their experiments on December 15, but there have been plenty of delays in getting this pilot set up, van Laar said.

“Screening of potential growers took more time than expected. And it turned out to be a problem for growers to find a location, to pay licenses to cultivate cannabis, or to obtain a bank account, and it took more time to grow sufficient high-quality, quantity, and diversity of cannabis,” she said.

Soon, other European countries will have lessons learned to add into the mix. Luxembourg has allowed for home cultivation and consumption since this July, with more reforms likely on the horizon. The government of Czechia has taken steps in recent months toward allowing for regulated sales for adults. And, while Switzerland is not part of the EU, its adult use pilot project got underway in Basel this year.