A Little Country Shall Lead Them: Luxembourg Jumps Out Front for European Cannabis Legalization

Luxembourg cannabis EU

By Oliver Bennett, Special Contributor to New Frontier Data

The trajectory of cannabis reform in Europe has often proven to be a case of one step forward, two steps back – before a step forward again. Consider Luxembourg: Just a few weeks ago, it was reported that the European Union’s second-smallest member by population (i.e., about 626,000), bruited about last year by New Frontier Data as poised to help the continent adopt legal cannabis, was pulling back from its own headlines. Now, such hesitancy seems either overblown or simply to have blown over. Luxembourg is again indeed set to proceed apace with reforms, taking the lead among the continent’s cannabis-ready countries in adopting a new phase. Meanwhile, Germany – the continent’s dormant giant with nearly 134x more residents than its diminutive next-door neighbour to the west – is itself preparing for change after its recent elections. With each the Social Democrats, FDP and Greens sharing power through a coalition government, Germany’s most solid political similarity may be a shared desire to  legalise cannabis.

During a recent roundtable from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), the body’s legal analyst Brendan Hughes spoke of “winds of change” blowing through the Americas and reaching the shores of Europe as the prohibition of cannabis has failed. It reflected a theme expressed in New Frontier Data’s The Global Cannabis Report: Growth & Trends Through 2025, which outlined how ”cannabis has undergone a sea change in liberalization, normalization, and commercialization” underscored by two key themes: growing acceptance of the plant’s therapeutic value, and recognition of the industry’s potential as a catalyst for economic growth. Major impetus was provided in December 2020 when the United Nations voted to reschedule cannabis, thus downgrading it by one level from the list of the world’s most dangerous drugs, and marking the most significant change in 60 years to the body’s policy regarding the plant. A process of acceptance, widespread if however incremental, is following from that.

As New Frontier Data noted, “Europe has been at the forefront of cannabis reform, with nearly 30 countries in the continent providing patients with access to some form of legalized medical cannabis… and three countries have legalized cannabis for adults.”

The popularity of cannabidiol (CBD) is playing a part in the new acceptance, helping to usher in attitudinal changes and the rejection of stigma required for cannabis to become a mainstream consumer product. As detailed by New Frontier Data in the global report, by 2019, when more than half (56%) of Europeans surveyed had heard of CBD, “social interactions with CBD consumers were already proving to be powerful influencing factors contributing to individuals’ willingness to purchase and consume products.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, respondents having a member of their social circle — i.e., family or friends — who consumed CBD were far more likely to have been recommended a CBD product. Concurrently, nearly three-quarters (74%) of CBD consumers reported its having a positive impact on their quality of life.

In the EMCDDA discussion, Tom Blickman of the TNI Transnational Institute noted that policy responses have changed towards cannabis, and that an earlier direction of getting tougher has been reversed, resulting with prison sentences reduced or removed, fines becoming smaller, and (in certain areas) warnings and counselling interventions replacing punitive measures.

The reforms suggest imminent, continent-wide changes coming in cannabis legalization, roughly following the model in the United States. The U.S. legal cannabis industry was estimated to be worth $13.6 billion in 2019, with 340,000 jobs. Europe still lags far from those levels, but by dint of the EU and other pan-European bodies it has the opportunity to establish a universal regulatory and legal framework to avoid many  thorny issues presented by the U.S.’s sclerotic scenarios with a state’s legalisation rubbing up against federal illegality, leading to profound knock-on issues including access to banking for cannabis companies. Some have argued that Europe should learn from some of the U.S. snags, such as staying clear of high cannabis taxes — one factor in encouraging consumers to use illicit markets even where legalisation has occurred.

Already, poor messaging and a lack of coherence across Europe has led to ambiguities. As the EMCDDA’s talk noted, in Portugal the 20-year-old policy of decriminalization led to people’s interpreting that cannabis is already legalised there, which is not the case.

The EMCDDA’s round table stressed the difficulty of having international boundaries with different languages and legal systems, even under the commonality of the EU – and pointed out that while some countries have reduced penalties, others have increased them, with correspondingly high rates of stigmatisation of cannabis. Even the Netherlands – despite being Europe’s proverbial poster child for cannabis legalisation – has long oscillated between liberality and greater enforcement; but even in its case, only one-third of Dutch municipalities allow coffee shops. Meanwhile Spain has recently pulled back on its cannabis clubs. Indeed, though Luxembourg’s original initiative was to have regulated cannabis, the country has stepped back to allowing some cultivation and a form of decriminalisation, so its progress has not advanced as far as had been expected.

Also, as EMCDDA pointed out, cannabis use among young adults do not necessarily change according to increased or reduced penalties. A better way forward, its argument went, would be to look at harm-reduction structures that take in THC-CBD ratios, and to adopt prevention messages promoting cannabis with lower THC levels and higher CBD levels, somewhat akin to tobacco and alcohol industries’ alerting consumers about risks and potential problems with habitual use or overuse.

Ultimately, Europe’s historically laissez-faire attitude toward cannabis (epitomized by social clubs and cannabis cafés in Spain and the Netherlands, respectively, and in Portugal’s decriminalization of all drugs) is slowly transitioning toward formalization and regulation of medical markets. While Germany leads the continent with the largest medical cannabis program, other nations (including the Netherlands and the U.K.) are working to lower traditional barriers to participation, and to increase their citizens’ access to medical cannabis.

Notably, the debate over fully legalizing cannabis for adult use has been comparatively muted in Europe, absent the social justice issues (e.g., racial inequity in cannabis prohibition) that help fuel legalization momentum in North America. However, there too, Germany is positioned to eventually take Europe’s lead from its upstart neighbours in Luxembourg.

As the EU’s largest economy, Germany’s passage of legalization would naturally reverberate throughout the continent, and its progress and perturbations alike will be closely watched by cannabis policy reform advocates near and abroad. If Germans elect a wave of pro-reform candidates, it will likely encourage political candidates in other countries to leverage cannabis policy reform as a means to galvanize young, reform-minded voters in particular.

As a GECA Pharma executive told DW, should Germany follow Canada’s model, its potential to provide for “up to 1 million patients and users in Germany in a relatively short time” would quickly outnumber Luxembourg’s entire population. But the Grand Duchy will always have gotten there first.