Clark Hill: The European Cannabis Market: Opportunity Knocks

In this article, we continue our journey reviewing the history of cannabis regulation and proceed to explore the current state of development of the legal cannabis market in Europe, canvassing its decriminalization and regulation as a culmination of a global pattern over the last 20 years.

What Can I Do and Where? 

It is important while tackling the objective of this article to draw a distinction between legal medicinal use and legal recreational use. This article shall not cross into industrial and other uses. While showing its age, the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (and others that followed) remains an international basis for cannabis is considered (contrary to modern medical evidence) to be an addictive drug with a serious risk of abuse.

The pattern of legislative change has seen two distinct patterns emerge globally since the year 2000: legalization for medicinal use and decriminalization for recreational use. The position across European countries is as follows:

CountryMedicinal UseRecreational Use
IrelandLegal (2019 – pilot program)Illegal
UKLegal (2018)Illegal, but enforcement is on-the-spot fines more often than to prosecution
AustriaLegal but heavily restricted (2008)Decriminalized (2016)
BelgiumLegal but restricted to one specific productDecriminalized (up to 3g possession) (2003)
CroatiaLegal (2015)Decriminalized – for small quantities, on-the-spot fines only (2013)
Czech RepublicLegal (2013)Decriminalized – for small quantities, on-the-spot fines only (2010)
DenmarkLegal (pilot program) (2018)Illegal
EstoniaLegal (2005)Decriminalized (<7.5g) (2002)
FinlandLegal (2006)Illegal but rarely enforced; on the spot fines only
FranceLegal – Limited two-year trial underway (2021)Illegal but on-the-spot fines are more typical
GermanyLegal (since 1998) for one product; special prescriptions available in limited circumstances (2017)Illegal but decriminalized for minor amounts <15g (on-the-spot fines only)
GreeceLegal (2018)Illegal
ItalyLegal (2013)Illegal but decriminalized for small scale cultivation / use (2019 – court decision)
LithuaniaLegal (2018)Illegal
LuxembourgLegal (pilot program since 2017, fully legal since 2018)Decriminalized (2001) with plans to expand to limited legalization (2021)
MaltaLegal (limited product since 2015, fully legal since 2018)Legal (December 2021)
NetherlandsLegal (2003)Decriminalization (1972), legal in specific locations (1976)
NorwayLegal (2018)Decriminalized – fines only (2022)
PolandLegal (2018)Decriminalization potential (case by case basis) for small quantities (2011)
PortugalLegal (2018)Decriminalization for small amounts (2001)
RomaniaLegal with 0.2% THC limitation (2005)Illegal
SpainLegal (2005)Not clearly criminalized; case-made law from 1997
SwedenLegal (limited) (2011)Illegal
SwitzerlandLegal (2011)Decriminalized to a fine (2012)

Isn’t the EU all about Harmonized Laws? 

Yes and no. As was seen in the Kanavape case (Case C-663/18, decision delivered 19th November 2020), there are limits on the free movement of goods which would otherwise set at nought local health-based regulations around use of cannabis. The bombshell decision opened the European market to hemp-derived CBD. In short, the highest court in the EU pronounced that CBD (when derived from the Cannabis sativa plant in its entirety – not just from its fibre and seeds) does not contain a psychoactive ingredient and is not captured by the 1961 Single Convention definition of “drug”. The limitation in the judgment is that there may be in theory national legislation if appropriate to the protection of health and life of humans and where it does not exceed that purpose.

Beyond such hemp-based CBD products, the EU’s centralized competencies for legislative action do not extend to narcotics. Rather, these are left to each member state to legislate, resulting in a patchwork of laws as is demonstrated by the above table.

 What about the Medicinal Cannabis Industry in Europe? 

Parking for the moment the fact that “medicinal cannabis” is not a commonly defined term across Europe, the market is significant and rapidly growing as the dominos tend to fall quicker in the field of medicinal cannabis compared to recreational use. Its value in 2021 was approximately €380m. The real story however is the estimated growth of the market. For Germany alone, perhaps one of the more advanced medicinal cannabis markets in Europe, the market value is poised to hit over €7bn by 2027. There will be 340,000 medicinal cannabis users in Europe in 2022 alone. The overall market is estimated by some to see growth of over 500% over the next three years. This is being driven by a mixture of legislation becoming more mature and a resultant diminution in stigma as medical evidence continues to support appropriate prescribed medicinal applications.

What is Ireland’s Role? 

From a legislative perspective, Ireland has not taken any steps towards decriminalization or legalization for personal use. The country’s measures to facilitate medically prescribed use of cannabis have been slow but successful, with prescribed cannabis now available within Ireland (subject to a limited number of government-issued licences to specific products/suppliers). The market is in its extreme infancy for now but based on international patterns there is likely to be growth. Ireland is more likely to be of interest for international cannabusinesses or those looking to expand to that scale and into Europe out of the U.S. or Canada. Ireland’s position as a gateway to Europe, being the sole remaining English-speaking common law country with familiar laws, stable government and an excellent range of insolvency options including examinership (like Chapter 11 bankruptcy) position Ireland as an objectively ideal corporate base.


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