You might have heard that Europe is set to become the largest market for cannabis businesses. Experts believe that the European cannabis market is ripe and ready to harvest — and what a harvest could it yield: €123 billion by 2028. The future might sound exciting, but you might be wondering what the European cannabis business landscape looks like right now. Is this the right time to invest in cannabis, or should you wait for the market to mature?
The history of cannabis business in Europe
Coffee shops that facilitated the sale and, often, on-site consumption of cannabis appeared in the Netherlands back in the 1970s. However, the cultivation, supply and possession of cannabis were (and still are) punishable offenses in the Netherlands.
Local municipalities tolerated and licensed the consumption of cannabis in an attempt to keep adults who want to experiment with drugs away from other, more dangerous, substances. Seeing this, civic groups in other European countries, such as Spain, have formed ‘cannabis social clubs’ that have since passed into legality.
Related: The History of Cannabis in Europe
The European public opinion on the use of medical cannabis has changed in the last two decades across the majority of the region. Once medical marijuana was legalised in California, it was only a matter of time until Europeans put pressure on local lawmakers to allow the use of medical cannabis treatments.
The legalisation and regulation of medical cannabis helped struggling economies, such as Greece, North Macedonia and Portugal, to reduce unemployment and promote the industry. In 2018, cannabis was the fastest growing industry in the United States, and that trend is likely to affect Europe as well.
Sub-industries of the European cannabis market
There’s no doubt that the medical cannabis industry is the driver of the cannabis market, its popularity and its scientifically-proven health benefits make this market sector attractive to investors.
But there are other sub-industries in the European cannabis market that have the potential to reach or even surpass the figures yielded by medical cannabis.
Hemp is a strain of the Cannabis sativa plant. Industrial hemp is one of the fastest-growing plants on the planet, and it can be refined into textiles, plastic, paint, paper, clothing, fuel, food and animal feed. According to the European Industrial Hemp Association, hemp has more than 10,000 applications.
According to Grand View Research, the global industrial hemp market will be worth $10.6 billion (€9.4 billion) by 2025, with a compound annual growth rate of 15 percent. Thanks to their high nutritional values, hemp seeds and hemp oil are often processed into food and beverages. Hemp seeds are a great source of Vitamin E, and they are also rich in minerals and other vitamins.
Lately, hemp has become more popular, mainly because its extracts can be used for medicinal or recreational purposes. Cannabinoids are extracted from the sticky resin that the hemp produces to protect its fruits from insects and the destructive effects of too much UV light.
On the 15th of January 2019, the European commission modified the EU’s Novel Food Catalogue. According to this revision, hemp extracts and hemp-derived products containing cannabinoids are now considered ‘novel’ foods, but hemp seeds, hemp flour and hemp seed oil are not.
Now, you might be wondering what a ‘novel’ food is. Well, this framing makes it more difficult for cannabinoid-infused products to enter the European market because they have to pass some pre-market testing to be approved.
While this regulation should make the hemp extract market safer for the average consumer, it might also discourage small businesses from entering the market since the pre-market approval can cost up to €300,000 per product.
Cannabidiol is one of the 100+ cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. This cannabinoid has been linked to several health benefits, including anxiety relief, pain relief, improved sleep and dermatological treatments. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved a CBD-based medicine as a treatment option for two severe forms of epilepsy — Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome.
These effects make CBD attractive for a lot of people, but one of its main strengths is that it does not produce a psychoactive high. This cannabinoid does not get you high, but it produces many of the effects attributed to medical marijuana.
The CBD industry is gaining a lot of attention nowadays, especially since the cannabinoid can be easily extracted from hemp and is legal across Europe. As a result of this, many hemp farmers have expanded their plantations because they can increase their profits considerably by directly monetising CBD instead of just growing and selling hemp for its seeds or fiber.
Since hemp is now in higher demand, European countries produced 36 percent more hemp in 2017 than in 2015. According to the Orian Research Group, the European CBD market represents about 31 percent of the global market and brings in about €450 million per year.
But the production and consumption of CBD are not equally distributed across the continent. Some counties, such as Switzerland, have more lenient legislation, which encourages both producers and consumers. The Swiss allow the commercialisation of CBD products in tobacco shops, making it accessible. As a result, Switzerland is one of the most important players in the European market.
Tetrahydrocannabinol is the most famous cannabinoid that is found in the Cannabis sativa plant. This is the cannabinoid that produces the famous or infamous ‘high’. As you can imagine, THC is restricted in most European countries. So, if this cannabinoid is restricted, how does it fit into the European cannabis business landscape?
Well, each European country can set its own standards when it comes to THC. Most EU countries abide by the Union’s recommendation and ban products containing more than 0.2 percent of THC (soon to be changed to 0.3 percent).
However, some member states and states that are not part of the EU do not comply with this rule. Switzerland, for example, allows the possession and consumption of cannabis extracts containing up to 1.0 percent of THC. As a result, some manufacturers produce high-THC extracts for customers who are looking for a dietary supplement with a kick.
Thanks to recent studies and the increasing popularity of cannabis extracts, European consumers are now looking to try other cannabinoids as well. Though they’re less popular than THC or CBD, cannabinoids such as cannabinol (CBN), cannabigerol (CBG) and others are slowly making themselves known to the European public.
Most important companies in the European cannabis market
Storz & Bickel
Storz & Bickel is the largest producer of vaporizers active in the European market. The company has a reputation for being one of the best in the vaporizer industry, and you can find their products in headshops all across Europe.
Endoca was founded by Henry Vincenty back in 2006, so the company has been around for a substantially longer time than other CBD brands. In fact, the company claims it was the first entity selling CBD online, which might be true.
Endoca’s European headquarters are based in the Netherlands, its hemp fields are located in Denmark and the company ships CBD products across Europe from their Germany-based warehouse. The company follows a seed-to-shelf business model, being involved in all the stages of the CBD’s production.
Agropro is currently the largest hemp producer, processor and supplier in Europe. The company was founded in 2007 and expanded its portfolio in 2013 when it started its activities in agriculture and food production.
Agropro follows a grain to table principle and controls all the steps involved in the production of its goods, from cultivation to delivery. The company is based in Lithuania and cooperates with multiple European organisations.
Royal Queen Seeds
Royal Queen Seeds is probably the most popular European online cannabis shop, and it’s one of the fastest-growing cannabis seed companies on the continent. The company sells a wide range of cannabis products, from feminized plants and medical seeds to CBD oil and everything in between.
The company operates several stores in Amsterdam and Barcelona, and it delivers its goods throughout Europe.
The European cannabis market landscape – Final thoughts
The European cannabis business landscape is more vibrant than ever. In 2018, the cannabis market was one of the fastest-growing sectors of the U.S. economy, and it seems like this trend reached Europe as well this year. Even though the European market is not mature when it comes to cannabis, the current trend is definitely a good one for investors.
It’s estimated that 16.6 million individuals (aged 15 – 34) on the continent used cannabis in the last year. And the continental cultural shift towards accepting cannabis as a health supplement and/or a recreational drug will continue to increase this figure, especially since many countries are planning to legalise cannabis in the near future.
However, investing in a cannabis business in Europe can have its downsides. Some countries follow unclear legislation, while others change their legislation, making it more difficult for the business owners to succeed. The lack of cohesion between the legislation of different states can also be a problem for those who want to operate or ship goods in multiple countries.
Despite all this, the legalisation of cannabis in several European and North American states should convince European lawmakers that establishing clear and concise regulations regarding cannabis helps businesses and countries prosper. Thus, it is only a matter of time until Europe will become the best place for cannabis businesses.