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In-Depth Coverage Of The Irish And European Markets

Cannabis Laws in Europe: Questions & Answers for Policymaking


A comprehensive report titled "Cannabis Laws in Europe: Questions & Answers for Policymaking" by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) sheds light on the current landscape of cannabis regulations in Europe. This groundbreaking study examines the diverse approaches to cannabis control across European countries and offers valuable insights for policymakers and stakeholders. The report delves into the evolving attitudes towards cannabis, the impact of regulated recreational markets in the Americas, and the growing support for re-evaluating cannabis policies in Europe. By addressing key questions and presenting a nuanced analysis, the EMCDDA report provides a foundation for informed decision-making in the realm of cannabis legislation and regulation.


Cannabis in Europe

Cannabis is both the illicit substance most frequently used in Europe and the one most often used in drug-related offences. According to conservative estimates, approximately 20% of people between the ages of 15 and 24 in the European Union (EU) have used cannabis during the past year. Over 27% of all individuals in the EU between the ages of 15 and 64 are expected to have used cannabis at least once in their lifetime. In 2020, the European Union reported 1.5 million drug law violations, according to estimates. Cannabis accounted for more than three-quarters of all known drug use or possession charges in 2020, according to the estimated 642,000 reported offences. In 2020, there were almost 93,000 cannabis supply offences registered, making up more than half of all drug supply charges.



In various American states, Uruguay since 2012, and Canada since 2018, the sale and use of cannabis for recreational purposes—as opposed to medical or industrial uses—have been legalised. Media and public conversations concerning the legal and regulatory frameworks in Europe that forbid or, in certain cases, authorise cannabis use and supply have increased as a result of this. Authorities in the Americas have embraced a variety of cannabis supply policy strategies, including private commercial sales, state-managed sales, non-profit communal growing (like cannabis social clubs), and individual production, among others. Since there are worries that these legal frameworks could encourage cannabis usage and its negative effects, the effects of these frameworks are being attentively watched. Meanwhile, proponents of legalisation have suggested that a controlled supply of the substance may actually lessen some of the social and health disadvantages associated with cannabis use and the black market for the drug. Important cannabis policy changes are also occurring in the European Union and major reforms have begun.



Cannabis legal boundaries

Guiding European cannabis policy from the background are multiple UN Conventions which prohibit actions related to drugs, such as possession, acquisition, distribution, or offering for sale, however, the conventions do not explicitly state that drug use itself should be a punishable offence. Since the initial drafting of the drug conventions, there has been a notable shift in many countries away from the punitive approach towards individuals who use drugs. This shift has also been reflected in international debates to some extent. In November 2018, the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination released a publication titled 'United Nations system common position supporting the Implementation of the international drug control policy through effective interagency collaboration'. This common position reaffirmed the unwavering commitment of the United Nations system to assist member states in developing and implementing balanced, comprehensive, integrated, evidence-based, human rights-based, development-oriented, and sustainable responses to the global drug problem. Within this common position, the participating agencies agreed to support alternatives to conviction and punishment, including the potential decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use in appropriate cases. More recently, the UN again has called on the international community to replace policies of punishment with one that respects, protects, promotes and fulfils the rights of all. This signifies a growing recognition among international entities of the need to explore new approaches that prioritise public health, human rights, and evidence-based policies. By endorsing such measures, the UN system demonstrates a commitment to promoting more progressive and pragmatic strategies in addressing the complex challenges posed by drug use.


Although recreational cannabis use is generally prohibited in the EU, regulations and implementation practices vary among Member States. The EU lacks harmonised legislation on cannabis use and possession, leaving it under the jurisdiction of individual Member States. However, the EU has the authority to establish minimum rules for defining criminal offences and sanctions related to serious cross-border crimes, including drug trafficking. The Council Framework Decision sets minimum provisions for drug trafficking offences and penalties but excludes personal drug possession. Member States are required to impose effective and proportionate criminal penalties for offences covered by the Framework Decision. The decision also outlines aggravating circumstances for offences involving drugs that are considered most harmful to health, although the classification of such drugs is determined by each Member State.


In Europe, countries can be divided into two groups regarding cannabis penalties. Some treat cannabis differently, basing penalties on harm caused by specific substances. Others impose uniform penalties for all drugs, but variations exist through law enforcement instructions and judicial discretion. Europe has seen a shift towards reducing imprisonment for personal cannabis possession, adopting non-custodial penalties or dismissal for minor offences. Definitions of decriminalisation, depenalisation, and legalisation vary, leading to different interpretations of national laws. Approach to cannabis possession varies by quantity thresholds and differs among countries. Changes in laws are driven by consistent punishments, aligning penalties with health risks, and prioritising treatment. Examples like Portugal, Slovenia, Croatia, and Malta show diverse reasons behind changes, including public health concerns and rehabilitative approaches.



Impact assessment

Assessing the impact of changing penalties for cannabis use on consumption is challenging due to various factors influencing drug use trends. Factors beyond the drug's legal status and indirect effects on police practices or risk perceptions complicate the evaluation. Legal changes often prioritise addressing other issues, and impact assessments are rarely conducted. Many countries have implemented alternatives to punishment, known as alternatives to coercive sanctions (ACS), for cannabis and drug users. These measures divert individuals from punitive measures to rehabilitative programs. Examples include arrest referral schemes, drug awareness courses, probation with treatment, and rehabilitation programs. European drug strategies show an increasing use of ACS, aligning with EU policies. However, the design and implementation of ACS vary, and challenges exist at the system, provider, and client levels. Imperfect data shows that in 2020, approximately 12,000 cannabis users were referred to specialised drug treatment services by the criminal justice system in Europe, with the proportion varying across countries.





Responses to Personal Possession

The approach to prosecuting individuals for growing cannabis plants for personal use varies among countries. While some countries have specific quantity thresholds that determine whether prosecution will occur, others have a more general approach. Moreover, the penalties for cultivating cannabis for personal use may differ from those for possession. In certain countries, the lower priority given to prosecuting individuals with a single cannabis plant has led to the emergence of cannabis social clubs, where collective growing takes place. Although these clubs are not legally recognised in the European Union and are generally considered illegal, they are informally tolerated in some locations and are now being considered in multiple member states.


Netherlands

In the Netherlands, cannabis cultivation, supply, and personal possession are considered criminal offences punishable by prison sentences. However, the country has adopted a policy of tolerance known as "coffee shops," where licensed establishments are allowed to sell small quantities of cannabis to adults as an effort to separate the market and keep young adults away from more dangerous drugs. Not all municipalities permit coffee shops, and their numbers have decreased over the years. These establishments must adhere to specific criteria, including no advertising, no sale to minors, and no sale of hard drugs or alcohol. Since 2013, coffee shops can only serve residents of the Netherlands, although the enforcement of this rule varies by municipality.


In the Netherlands, the sale of cannabis in coffee shops is restricted to no more than 5 grams per person per transaction, and these establishments are not allowed to keep more than 500 grams in stock. However, there is a challenge known as "the back-door problem," where the wholesale cultivation and distribution of cannabis are not tolerated, creating a discrepancy between the legal sale at the front door and the illegal supply through the back door. While the police have the discretion to confiscate small amounts of cannabis, individuals will not face formal prosecution if they voluntarily surrender such items.


An evaluation conducted in 2009 found that coffee shops were the main source of cannabis for users in the Netherlands, successfully keeping the markets for soft and hard drugs separate. Adult cannabis use was relatively low compared to other European countries, but there were concerns about high underage use, the commercialisation of the sector, and issues with drug tourism. Additionally, the involvement of organised crime groups and the "back-door" problem posed challenges, as funds from coffee shop sales were being funnelled into the illicit economy.



Social Clubs

Cannabis social clubs operate under the premise that if an individual can cultivate a single cannabis plant for personal use without prosecution, then a group of people should be able to collectively cultivate multiple plants exclusively for their own use. However, this concept raises challenges. Determining what qualifies as "shared" cultivation is problematic, and distinguishing these activities from other drug supply offences is unclear. Drug supply offences are legally defined differently across the European Union, often involving the transfer of drugs between individuals and sometimes considering quantity criteria. In response to potential legal challenges, cannabis social clubs have attempted to establish operational guidelines to avoid charges related to drug trafficking or supply and to discourage drug use. These guidelines propose collective agreements, member registers, cost calculations based on individual consumption, limited production per person for immediate use, and exclusive membership for existing cannabis users by invitation only. However, this model is not officially accepted by national authorities in countries like Belgium, France, Germany, Slovenia, and Spain, leaving clubs operating in a legal grey area. Nevertheless, in December 2021, Malta passed a law providing a legal framework for such clubs, and the German government proposed a similar model in April 2023.


Cannabis social clubs are not widely prevalent in Europe, and limited information is available regarding their numbers. A 2018 research project identified social clubs in 13 European countries, highlighting their diverse characteristics in terms of membership size, activities (such as cultivation or activism), and members' motivations (recreational or medical use). In some areas of Spain, certain clubs have tried to operate under the premise that private possession of cannabis is not penalised, but in 2015, the Spanish Supreme Court ruled that organised and persistent cultivation and distribution within an association open to new members would be considered drug trafficking.



Forms of Cannabis Regulation Proposed in Europe

Malta

In the past decade, some political parties in European Union countries have proposed detailed regulations for the recreational use of cannabis, but these were mostly rejected by national governments. However, since 2017, several EU Member States, including Malta, have undergone significant policy developments regarding cannabis. In Malta, a government White Paper published in 2021 led to the passage of a law in December 2021, which decriminalises personal possession of up to 7 grams of cannabis and allows for the cultivation of up to four plants in a safe and discreet place. The law also permits non-profit cannabis clubs and includes measures for expunging related criminal records, imposing administrative fines for public consumption, and implementing educational campaigns. These reforms aim to reduce humiliation, promote harm reduction, and decrease illicit drug market activities.


Netherlands

In October 2017, the Dutch government agreed to conduct a cannabis policy experiment called the "controlled supply chain experiment" in 6-10 municipalities. The initiative was a response to public concerns about the problems caused by the toleration policy, including public order, public health, and crime. The experiment would be conducted in four phases, involving the participation of all coffee shops in the selected municipalities. Ten small to medium-sized municipalities were initially chosen, with one large municipality later included. The experiment, which started in July 2020 and is expected to last for four years, aims to compare the results with non-participating municipalities. The experiment includes selected growers who will supply the coffee shops with cannabis, and the stock limits for the stores will be adjusted based on average expected weekly sales. A preliminary phase of the experiment is set to begin in Tilburg and Breda by the end of 2023, with a scientific evaluation accompanying the overall process.



Luxembourg

In Luxembourg, the government has been working on legislation to regulate the purchase, consumption, and possession of recreational cannabis by adult residents. The aim is to combat the illicit market and associated risks, as well as drug-related crime. While the plan to sell cannabis to residents has been delayed, the government is moving forward with a proposal to allow the cultivation of up to four plants per household and reduce penalties for public consumption or possession. Draft amendments to the law, including the four-plant cultivation limit and non-criminal fines for minor possession, have been presented. The government has also published a report on a pilot project for legal access to cannabis, which includes a two-step model allowing home growing and the establishment of dispensaries for sales.



Germany

In Germany, the new government announced its intention to introduce controlled sales of cannabis for recreational use in licensed shops in order to ensure quality, prevent the distribution of contaminated substances, and protect minors. The government published key issues papers outlining the goals of quality control, health protection, and evaluation after four years. A two-pillar model was developed, with the first pillar focusing on national non-commercial private and community cultivation for personal use, including limits on plant numbers and public carrying. Non-profit associations, or cannabis clubs, would be limited in membership and supply cannabis exclusively to members. The second pillar involves a regional and time-limited pilot project that includes commercial supply chains in specialist shops, with a focus on examining health and youth protection effects and the impact on the illegal market. Both pillars prioritise health and youth protection, and the regulations will be evaluated after specific timeframes (4 years for the first pillar, 5 years for the second pillar).



Czechia

In Czechia, the government has approved a revised addiction policy action plan for 2023-2025. The plan aims to balance regulation and individual freedom, considering the degree of harm associated with addictive substances. One of the priorities is to establish a regulated market for cannabis and other substances, such as tobacco and alcohol, with different regulatory models based on their public health risks. This includes regulating prices, taxation, and advertising. The proposal emphasises the importance of scientific assessment to protect public health, minimise harm, and reduce the illegal market. Additionally, the action plan focuses on prevention and treatment of addictions, including early intervention programs.



Switzerland

In Switzerland, an amendment to the Federal Act on Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances was passed in September 2020, allowing for limited scientific pilot trials on non-medical cannabis use in adults. The purpose of these trials is to gather scientific evidence for potential cannabis regulation. The amendment came into effect in May 2021 and will last for 10 years. The trials will be conducted in specific communes for a period of five years, with the possibility of extending for up to two years. The number of participants will be limited to what is necessary for scientific evaluation, with a maximum of 5,000 subjects per trial. The trials aim to investigate the impact of controlled cannabis access on users' physical and mental health, behaviour, and various socio-economic factors. The trials will also consider the effects on the illicit market, the protection of minors, and public safety. Measures to protect minors include childproof packaging, safe storage rules, and appropriate labelling with warnings. The first pilot trial was launched in Basel in January 2023, allowing participants to purchase cannabis products from selected pharmacies.



Possible Effects of Cannabis Regulation

The EMCDDA commissioned a review of studies on the regulation of recreational cannabis use and supply in the Americas since 2012. Different models have been implemented, including private cultivation, sale, and consumption, cannabis social clubs, and state-grown cannabis. The review prioritised peer-reviewed studies and excluded methodologically weak ones. The United States (US) had established medical cannabis dispensaries prior to legalisation, allowing for a well-funded industry that could influence legislators' decisions. Direct advertising of prescription medicines and the First Amendment's protection of freedom of speech in the US also influenced the commercial model of cannabis regulation. American jurisdictions legalised cannabis through public ballots, requiring quick regulatory models. In Canada, legalisation was preceded by a task force and parliamentary hearings. Uruguay implemented a highly state-supervised public health model with purchaser registration and fingerprint identification. The objectives for legalisation and concerns raised by critics can be categorised into five areas: crime and public safety, health, prevention, economic/budgetary issues, and normative reasons. The report discusses various outcomes related to the prevalence of use, consumption patterns, treatment admissions, adverse medical events, impaired driving, consumption of other substances, criminal justice, tax revenues, and public opinion. Short-term results should be interpreted with caution, considering the delay in identifying problematic cannabis use and variations in local regulations. To evaluate the success or failure of a policy change, metrics aligned with the original objectives and baseline measurements are crucial, although rapid policy changes in North America have made baseline measurements challenging. Policymakers in Europe considering changes to cannabis laws can learn from these experiences.



Medical Cannabis in Europe

Under international law, the UN conventions state that drugs under international control should be limited to medical and scientific purposes. This allows for the use of cannabis or cannabis-derived products as medicine for specific defined conditions. Many narcotic substances listed in the drug control conventions have authorisation for use as medicinal products in the European Union. The term "medical use of cannabis and cannabinoids" is often used in a public debate but can be inconsistent and non-specific, referring to various preparations and products with different active ingredients and routes of administration. The distinctions between these terms have regulatory and medical implications. It's important to understand that "cannabis and cannabinoids for therapeutic purposes" encompass both medicinal products with marketing authorisation and cannabis preparations made available through other regulatory measures for therapeutic use.






Cannabis-derived medicinal products in Europe are subject to the general requirements applicable to all medicinal products. Some cannabis-derived medicines have already received marketing authorisation and are available on the EU market. In the absence of such authorisation, some Member States allow access to cannabis-derived medicinal preparations on a patient-by-patient basis, prescribed by a medical doctor, under the exception provided in the EU pharmaceutical legislation. The Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products of the EMA has compiled a list of terms and definitions for cannabis-derived medicinal products. Several European countries permit the cultivation of cannabis for medicinal purposes, either for domestic use or for export, under strict rules and regulations. While cannabinoids have been found to relieve symptoms of certain illnesses, they are often used as adjunctive treatments and typically when other recommended therapies have failed. More research, clinical studies, and trials are needed to address knowledge gaps, dosage issues, potential interactions, and long-term effects. The European Parliament has called for increased research into the medical uses of cannabis. There is currently limited research available on the abuse and dependence liability of cannabis-derived medical products and effective risk mitigation measures. Some EU countries have implemented special access schemes for medical cannabis, allowing limited use for specific medical conditions with medical approval and oversight. The extent of use may be influenced by decisions regarding patient costs and reimbursement. Member States have varying policies on the importation of cannabis preparations not available for a prescription from non-EU countries where they are legal, along with accompanying medication prescriptions.



Low THC Products

In recent years, there has been an increase in the availability of cannabis products, including herbal cannabis and cannabis oils, in Europe. There is also growing interest in developing products containing cannabidiol (CBD) or other cannabis extracts with low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or without THC. The low levels of THC in these products may exempt them from drug laws in some countries, but they may still be subject to other trade regulations, which vary among different Member States.






A study conducted by the EMCDDA found that low-THC cannabis products are being sold in most EU countries, with various retailers involved in the market. These products can be found in everyday retail outlets, health food stores, pharmacies, and cafes, as well as in dedicated shops specialising in low-THC cannabis products. Some shops focus on health and well-being, while others aim to mimic illicit recreational cannabis products. This has led to a complex situation where cannabis extracts are being sold in different commercial sectors, often conflicting with drug control regulations. The legal status of these products and their potential harm have become concerns for policymakers. Establishing the legal status and determining which regulatory frameworks should apply to the sale of low-THC products present a challenge. The EU has directives and regulations that may be applicable to these products, providing standardised definitions for different types of products such as foods and cosmetics. Some regulations apply uniformly across all EU Member States, while others require national implementation. In addition to CBD, other phytocannabinoids such as CBN, CBC, and CBG have been studied for their potential use in medicine, cosmetics, and other purposes. The regulatory frameworks for these products are still evolving.


Low-THC cannabis products that comply with specific regulations can be sold for smoking in certain countries. Since 2017, herbal products marketed for smoking with low THC content or extracted from industrial cannabis plants have been openly available for sale in many EU countries. The EU Directive 2014/40/EU on tobacco and related products, known as the Tobacco Products Directive (TPD), establishes a regulatory system for "herbal products for smoking." These products, based on plants, herbs, or fruits and containing no tobacco, can be consumed through combustion. While the TPD does not exclude the regulation of cannabis or related products as herbal products for smoking, if they fall within this category, they must comply with the TPD's requirements.


Under the TPD, specific provisions for product labelling and ingredient reporting (Articles 21 and 22) apply to products classified as herbal products for smoking. Manufacturers and importers must submit a list of ingredients and quantities by brand and type to the national authorities before placing a new herbal product for smoking on the market. Many Member States have reported herbal products for smoking containing or associated with cannabis, with an increase in the number of such products since 2019. The sale of low-THC cannabis herb and resin products poses challenges for law enforcement, as distinguishing between low- and high-THC cannabis on the street, in shops, or at the border is not straightforward. Testing all products would be impractical and costly. Some countries have developed rapid reagent tests for on-site use by police, which can detect the presence or amount of THC in a product. However, not all law enforcement agencies in Europe have access to such instruments. Additionally, achieving consistent test results, even in laboratories, can be challenging. Adulteration of low-THC herbal and resin cannabis with potent synthetic cannabinoids further complicates the policy landscape, as these adulterated products are then sold as illicit cannabis on the illegal drug market.



Conclusion

The report delves into the current state of cannabis policies and regulations in Europe, shedding light on the increasing support for re-evaluating how we approach cannabis control. It highlights the positive impact of regulated recreational markets in the Americas as a driving force behind this shift. Moreover, the report recognises the growing acceptance of cannabis-derived medicines and the improved access to therapeutic cannabis in Europe, which is a step forward in promoting wellness and health.


However, the report acknowledges that there are challenges to overcome in terms of national policies, especially with the commercialisation of cannabis-based products in the wellness industry. In order to fully understand the potential benefits and drawbacks of different cannabis regulations, the report emphasises the need for a comprehensive evaluation framework. It recognises that there are valid arguments from both supporters and opponents of cannabis policy changes, but cautions against directly applying experiences from the Americas to the European context due to differences in circumstances.

Additionally, the report highlights the more lenient approach to cannabis control in EU countries compared to other illicit substances. It also sheds light on the disparity between formal policies and their actual enforcement, as well as the limited impact of minor legislative changes on cannabis use prevalence.


Overall, the report encourages a friendlier and more progressive approach to cannabis regulation, taking into account the evolving understanding of its benefits and the need for a comprehensive evaluation to inform future policies.



You can find the full EMCDDA Report here





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