The History of Cannabis Regulation

In this first in a series of three articles, we explore the history of the cannabis industry for the benefit of our Irish and European readers. Against the backdrop of a thriving and increasingly complex industry in North America and other countries across the Atlantic, let’s assess the recent, but rapidly expanding regulation of a legal cannabis industry in Europe and how our laws have begun to evolve away from blanket prohibition.

What is the Cannabis Industry?  

It is an umbrella term with different meanings to different people, often with confusing overlapping terminology. Cannabis is a collective noun covering both hemp and marijuana. These plants are both the same species (cannabis sativa) but the threshold of 0.3% THC (the psychoactive substance) distinguishes hemp from marijuana. Each have several industrial, medical, and recreational uses dating back millennia. The cannabis industry as we know it today is classically defined as comprising all activities and professionals involved directly and indirectly in the legal production, logistics, sale, and use of medical or recreational marijuana and hemp. This includes industrial applications. Whether such activities or products are legal depends on jurisdiction.

The use of hemp for industrial applications is well documented, going back 3,000 years to the Vikings who used hemp as a material for their tapestries. The first copies of the Gutenberg bibles were printed on paper made from hemp fibers. The sails, nets, and rope on Christopher Columbus’ fleet were made of hemp. It was cheap, plentiful, and reliable, but cotton and petroleum based synthetic fibers came to replace it due to ease of processing and bulk importing.

The use of marijuana as a medicine or recreational drug is far more recent, perhaps as early as 1798 when Napoleon’s troops brought hashish back from their campaign in Egypt. Hashish was subsequently banned by Napoleon in Egypt, but a blind eye was taken locally in France and its use spread widely in Paris.

What Changed? 

In short, confusion. Marijuana was the subject of a global scale control mechanism as long ago as 1925 (see the League of Nations Opium Convention). Ireland made cannabis illegal in 1934 around the same time as states across the U.S. By the 1950s, many countries had strict controls or prohibitions in place. Amidst greater controls being placed internationally on the recreational use of marijuana and grounded largely in a lack of understanding of the distinction between the hemp and marijuana plants. Hemp was proscribed as a narcotic by the UN single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961), the first in a series of International Drug Control Conventions (IDCCs) which still substantially influence national drug policies across the globe. Non-medical and non-scientific research related activities were exempted. Nevertheless, the mood music changed and because of the IDCCs, industrial hemp production fell dramatically, and a stigma became attached to hemp just as much as to marijuana.

One by one, countries around the world included both as scheduled and controlled drugs with all associated criminalization consequences.

Turning Point 

Restrictive laws rolled in globally until the end of the 20th Century, when there was a marked change in direction globally towards various forms of legalization, ranging from pilot periods of legalized use of cannabis for medical purposes to outright legalization of personal recreational use. The United States (not all states) and Canada currently lead the global market by some distance, but with its population and economic strength, Europe is projected to dwarf these markets by a significant distance as soon as 2028 with a value of €123 billion.

As one of the fastest growing global industries, cannabis has come full circle in just 100 years. Europe, like the USA, is a tapestry of varying laws on the subject and the extent to which harmonization is likely to happen any time soon depends on the sub-product being considered e.g., medicinal marijuana v. CBD oil of <0.2% THC.

Stay tuned for next week’s article where we will look at the current state of play of regulation across the most significant cannabis markets in Europe.

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