One of the greatest advantages of the European Union is its so-called single market. It offers member states the ability to move goods and services smoothly across borders. It boosts local economies by offering small businesses access to a much larger market. It has also attracted many companies from outside of the EU to participate. Nearly every industry has been able to leverage this convenience. Except for the European cannabis industry. With so many conflicting positions, European and foreign businesses have been hesitant to expand much further than their respective home country.
Fortunately, the European Commission wants to change this via its latest proposal.
A common position on cannabis
The European Commission announced this month that it, along with member states, will vote on three of the latest six cannabis recommendations proposed by the World Health Organization (WHO). These recommendations were first proposed in January 2019, with preliminary discussions happening in 2018.
The vote, during which the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) will review the status of various drugs around the world, will take place in March 2020 in Vienna.
The European Commission’s plan is to persuade all member states to take the same stance on a handful of cannabis-related issues. If it can whip together all European votes, it would effectively make up 13 of the 53 voting members present in Vienna.
That being said, the European Commission clarified that it would wait to vote on the other two proposals, and rejected a third outright.
Of the three proposals under investigation, the most notable is the removal of cannabis and its resins from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Schedule IV drugs are those that inflict the most dangers and offer the least medical benefits to the populace. Examples of other Schedule IV drugs include opioids like fentanyl and heroin.
Instead, the WHO has suggested that the cannabis plant should be reclassified as a Schedule I drug, the Single Convention’s least restrictive classification. In a 2018 report on the initial meeting to review the status of cannabis in the European Union, the WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) said:
‘The Committee recommended a more rational system of international control surrounding cannabis and cannabis-related substances that would prevent drug-related harms whilst ensuring that cannabis-derived pharmaceutical preparations are available for medical use.’
The reason the EU has taken so long to vote on the subject boils down to conflicting opinions on this particular recommendation.
Medical professionals have, nonetheless, been vocal that such barriers must be brought down to meaningfully explore all the medical benefits of cannabis. And, while a successful vote in March won’t mean immediate legal revision, it will contribute to the medical sector’s research interests.
The other two recommendations include adding dronabinol and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to the same Schedule 1 drug list. By including these two compounds, the recommendation asserts that THC, in all its chemical forms, should no longer be associated with much harder drugs.
Voting for these two recommendations would also make it simpler for member states to better regulate THC-based products. All three of these recommendations, if accepted by the EU and voted in favour in Vienna, would be a huge step in regulating the medical cannabis sector in Europe.
France, Germany, Italy and Holland are currently the biggest players in this slice of the cannabis market. Adding a unified vision would likely entice other countries in the continent to develop their respective industries.
The remaining three recommendations will not be included in this upcoming vote due to two different reasons. First off, the EU requested that the WHO perform further analysis of its cannabis tincture and extract proposal, as well as its stance on cannabidiol (CBD).
Like other recommendations, the health organisation is hoping to remove cannabis extracts from the Schedule I of the 1961 Convention. The European Commission stated, however, that it needed more research into how these types of derivatives can produce controlled levels of THC. At the moment, the standards vary between levels of non-psychoactive and therapeutic compounds.
The second recommendation revolves around a reclassification of cannabidiol.
Although the ECDD stated that CBD ‘has no potential for abuse and no potential to produce dependence’, the European Commission is worried that lowering controls on this particular compound could have adverse effects. This is primarily because of the ECDD’s rather vague language in its recommendation.
Finally, the European Commission has announced that it would vote down a recommendation that would reclassify pharmaceutical cannabis. This move appears negative at first glance, but the Commission confirmed that it’s merely an issue of semantics.
Current European law does not have an equivalent term for ‘pharmaceutical preparations’ and attempting to translate this meaning on a state-by-state basis places undue complexity on members.
From this, one can glean one overarching theme: Europe is slowly easing up on cannabis regulations.
The principle point to draw from this upcoming vote is that the European Commission is hoping to reclassify cannabis from a highly-restrictive legal status to one that is much more relaxed.
In many ways, the move is positive, despite its lack of immediacy. For instance, there likely won’t be any firm legislation passed after the March session in Vienna. It may, however, mean members of the EU will follow the Commission’s lead.
Key legislation will likely begin rolling in as different countries apply an equally liberal vision of cannabis at home. And this is a critical step in what appears to be an inevitable cannabis windfall in Europe.
From taboo to law
Looking back on Canada’s eventual cannabis legalisation provides a template for how European countries can hope to achieve the same goals. Companies like Canopy, Aphria and Aurora, which are now the largest pot firms in the world, all began with a strong medical background.
The same is true for the United States, a country that just 70 years ago associated cannabis with violence, death and moral decay. Now, more than 20 states have legalised the plant, with others soon to follow.
Europe, especially in countries like Germany, are preparing a similar trajectory. Unfortunately, most European countries are still fighting hard against cultural taboos.
The primary mechanism through which these changes can occur is first convincing the medical community of the benefits of cannabis. France is undergoing one of Europe’s biggest experiments into this exact process.
Not only will 3,000 patients be monitored during the course of the 18-month trial but medical professionals, lawyers and government officials will also be educated on how the plant can be used therapeutically.
If successful, the European Commission’s proposed vote will soon make persuading critical demographics to consider cannabis much easier. Combine this with horror stories of patients being arrested for growing small quantities to soothe their maladies, and politicians will also find an effective election platform.
Indeed, the medical community and regulators must work in harmony before ever thinking of recreational cannabis.
The Economist wrote briefly about the slow winds of legislative change in August 2019. It stated:
‘Allowing medical cannabis forces governments to build regulatory structures to control the legal supply to patients. Once this happens, it seems easier for societies to accept the idea of recreational use. When grandma starts smoking pot for her arthritis, the drug has entered the mainstream.’
Concluding, Europe is following a common trend in the cannabis space, which was followed by the likes of Canada and the United States. Although the process may not be happening as fast as some would like, onlookers can take solace in the fact that it’s happening at all.