September 11th, 2020
In the last few years, following the wave of adult-use legalisation in North America, Oceania and the Caribbean, some forward-looking European governments have set their sights on partially regulating recreational cannabis use in Europe, hoping to curtail the black market, ensure public safety, reduce costs of policing and develop a domestic industry.
Dutch cannabis policies set the precedent
Over the past half century, The Netherlands has been the European frontrunner in terms of cannabis policies, allowing coffee-shops to establish in the mid-70s and licensing companies to grow cannabis for therapeutic purposes since 2003, a decade before anyone else in Europe. Even if it is still a criminal offence to sell cannabis, coffee-shops and small-scale possession are largely tolerated.
In early 2018, the Dutch Parliament passed legislation to allow between five and ten licensed growers to supply local adult-use programmes, which will take place in ten municipalities of the country. In July 2020, the government started receiving applications, which has attracted attention from North American LPs, who are keen to take a foothold in the European recreational market.
The Dutch government predicts that the programme will require 56 tonnes of cannabis per year to supply the experiment, which only involves 80 of the estimated 570 coffee-shops in the country. Projections are likely on the high-end, but this level of demand is five times more than the current legal supply of medical cannabis across the whole of Europe, and almost 100 times the demand of the Dutch medical scheme.
The Netherlands has a unique opportunity to build on the successes of its tolerant cannabis policies. Unlike Canada or California, where the established legal adult-use schemes must still compete with significant black market activity, the majority of cannabis retail in the country is carried out through public outlets, improving the ability of the government to regulate and tax a market worth billions.
Pilot programmes expected to grow
Earlier this year, plans for a recreational cannabis scheme in Luxembourg were unveiled. The government later explained that it was working to allow two licensed growers to supply pharmaceutical-grade cannabis to 14 dispensaries throughout the small country, as well as opening the door to exports.
In Switzerland, certain cantons will be able to supply adult-use cannabis to 5,000 users in localised pilot programmes, which have recently been approved by the upper house, even if some dispute remains over whether to allow foreign cannabis in the experiment. This follows rejected plans in the city of Berna to set up their own, local experiment in 2017.
In the last few years, some regional parliaments in Spain have passed legislation regulating hundreds of existing cannabis associations and granting them the right to grow cannabis for their members. However, the Spanish Constitutional Court later found the Catalan law unconstitutional, as narcotics legislation is ruled exclusively by the central government. In Barcelona, a hotbed of cannabis club movement, the local government has regulated aspects of cannabis associations falling under municipal purview.
Activists and patients in other European countries have begun developing associations on a more limited scale, with some 70 cannabis social clubs listed in the UK and a handful in Belgium and the Netherlands, often tolerated despite some frictions with law enforcement.
The medical market is still in a nascent stage in Europe but adult-use pilot programmes are likely to accelerate from the regional to the national level over the next two to three years. It’s still unknown what model will be adopted at a national level but if the regulators are pleased with the initial results of these ‘experiments’, legislation is only likely to move in one direction.