A protester smokes a marijuana cigarette in Madrid, Spain, during a march for the legalization of marijuana. From improving public health to increasing tax revenues and reducing taboos around medical marijuana, the merits of a legal market are numerous, advocates told an industry event in London last week.
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Calls to legalize cannabis are mounting across Europe, as a growing number of countries seek to replicate progressive moves by Canada and parts of the U.S. to greenlight the drug.
From improving public health to increasing tax revenues and reducing taboos around medical marijuana, the merits of a legal market are numerous, advocates told an industry event in London last week.
That’s despite longstanding pushback from critics, who argue that legalization leads to more crime, addiction and health risks.
“We know what works is a regulated market,” Jindřich Vobořil, the Czech Republic’s national drug coordinator, said Tuesday.
Vobořil said it’s high time that cannabis is treated the same as other regulated items under his purview, such as tobacco and alcohol.
“We know what doesn’t work is prohibition. We see it with alcohol, we see it with tobacco, we see it with gambling,” he added.
The Czech Republic is among half a dozen European countries that have in recent months announced plans to legalize the plant under radical new reforms.
Prague said last year it was drafting a bill to legalize the drug for adult use, marking the country’s most dramatic step forward since personal possession was permitted in 2010.
It followed Germany, which in October published proposals to greenlight the consumption and sale of cannabis — a plan that, if passed, would make it the world’s largest regulated national marijuana market.
Elsewhere, Luxembourg has passed a law allowing residents to grow marijuana for personal use; Malta has greenlit private “cannabis clubs”; and Switzerland, a non-EU country, has approved a trial of the drug’s sale and consumption in Zurich.
Even the Netherlands — where the growth and sale of the cannabis is technically criminalized though tolerated — plans to launch a pilot program to test the legal sale of the drug by the end of this year.
“It’s very important the Netherlands takes the next and final step,” Dorien Rookmaker, member of the European Parliament for the Netherlands, said. “This is legalizing the growth of cannabis.”
Still, governments face pushback at the European Union level, with many so far struggling to produce a bill that adheres to EU laws, international drug treaties and public health concerns.
Though marijuana is permitted for medicinal purposes in a number of European states, the region has long taken a conservative approach to recreational weed, and some fear that legalization in one state could have knock-on effects for neighboring countries that oppose such moves.
The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, told CNBC that it could not comment on specific national discussions, but added that it was following developments closely.
“We are aware and we are following closely these developments in Member States, notably to understand the impact of changes in cannabis policies. This includes the impact on health, crime, environment or social aspects,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
Activists demanding the legalization of marijuana march past the Reichstag during the annual Hemp Parade in Berlin, Germany.
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EU regulation requires member states to ensure that the sale of illicit drugs including cannabis is “punishable by effective, proportionate and dissuasive criminal penalties,” but it does not restrict personal consumption. Commercial legalization is also incompatible with international treaties, including the U.N.’s 1961 single convention on narcotic drugs, though countries like Canada and Uruguay have not faced serious consequences since moving to permit the drug.
As a result of EU feedback, Germany last month watered down its wide-reaching legalization plans, with Health Minister Karl Lauterbach noting that his initial proposal had “failed” and the revision would have to “go new ways.”
The updated legislation now aims to allow private consumption and distribution through non-profit groups, while also outlining the potential for a pilot project to test the sale of the drug in a small group of licensed shops.
Such setbacks are not deterring proponents, however, who insist that legalization will improve safeguards within the industry, aid youth protection and combat illicit drug trafficking, without hurting the wider bloc.
“There are so many countries that see that prohibition policies have failed,” said Dirk Heitepriem, deputy chairman of the German Cannabis Business Industry Association.
“I’m very, very optimistic that long-term we’ll find a solution, find a framework for EU members to legalize cannabis while others remain on their position to say ‘no, this is not our cup of tea.'”
One potential route, according to Rookmaker, would be for members of the public to raise a European Citizens’ Initiative in support of legalization. That’s a mechanism which allows citizens to propose EU policies to the commission if they garner a minimum of 1 million votes.
In a 2022 study, more than half (55%) of people across eight European countries said they were in favor of legalizing weed, according to London-based strategic consultancy Hanway Associates.
“The legalization of cannabis could be the 101st Citizens Initiative,” said Rookmaker, noting that the commission is currently considering its 100th initiative, which calls for all European capitals to be connected via high-speed railway lines. “In this way, I think we can make a big step forward.”
That has policymakers like Vobořil hopeful that discussions of weed legalization within the EU will grow in the months to come.
“It’s necessary. It will happen at some point everywhere. I don’t think it’s stoppable,” Vobořil added.