Cannabis Reform Earns Increasing Currency Amid European Elections

cannabis reforms

By Oliver Bennett, Special Contributor to New Frontier Data

In Europe, cannabis has come in from the margins. With gradual but inexorable force, it has become a keynote political issue – and this autumn looks to take centre stage in electoral contests and referenda across the continent, home to one-third (33%) of the 1.05 billion people in 70 countries worldwide with legal access to high-THC cannabis products.

Indeed, as noted in New Frontier Data’s newly released Global Cannabis Report: Growth & Trends Through 2025, 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. While most of those have been granted through a limited, case-by-case issuance of compassionate-use licenses by health officials, three countries have legalized cannabis for adults. The Netherlands provides high-THC cannabis through a network of coffee shops, in addition to operating a domestic medical cannabis cultivation program. The country also serves as global headquarters for Bedrocan — the company whose high-THC products are most frequently cited on short lists of approved products in restrictive medical markets across the world. Many, if not most, of the remaining countries in Europe are actively reviewing draft legislation or assigning committees to review aspects of cannabis legalization in the coming year.

In Finland, the Green League – the country’s key ecological party, which a few years ago was the third biggest part of Finland’s power-sharing government – made the decision to support the legalisation of cannabis use, and decided to put it to the vote. While the decision was marginal (183 members voted for a motion with 181 opposed), it was also historic, as the Green League became the nation’s first parliamentary party to openly support legalised cannabis in Finland.

In the centre of Europe, meanwhile, the pro-cannabis Pirate Party has similarly made waves in the Czech Republic with its key pledge ahead of the Oct. 8-9 general election being the legalisation of cannabis. The party’s high-profile chairman Ivan Bartoš, well-known among his colleagues for his trenchant views and dreadlocked hair, has proposed the goal of cannabis legalization alongside other libertarian remedies including copyright and data-sharing laws, along with the technological modernization of the political system.

And in Italy it has just been announced that a nationwide referendum to legalise cannabis will take place early in 2022. The proclamation has spurred hope among cannabis advocates, as some believe that if the Italian voters vote in favour it will ignite a wave of legalisation and decriminalisation across Europe in the spirit of the U.S. and Canada. The referendum’s backers have already gained more than 500,000 signatures on a petition – the point at which a vote becomes required by law, and the Italian story will escalate as the months wear on.

But the single-biggest political earthquake could be provided in Germany even sooner, with its voters going to the polls on Sunday. With Chancellor Angela Merkel (who voted against the 2020 adult-use bill) leaving politics, her centre-right Christian Democratic Union is expected to lose votes to the Greens, expanding support for cannabis reform in time for the next parliament to enable more access to cannabis.

The cannabis industry will be watching the election closely, as the prevailing conservative political union has opposed recreational legalization. Some pundits suggest that cannabis could be legalized this year – including further freedoms in the coveted medical market, with expectations to be worth $354 million, making it the second-largest government-backed medical market worldwide after Canada.

New Frontier Data takes the long view, charting the moves and anticipating their effects. “As the EU’s largest economy, Germany’s passage of major cannabis reform would have significant implications for European drug policy, and the outcome of the election will be closely watched by cannabis policy reform advocates across the continent and abroad,” the report details. “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 voters, reform-minded voters in particular.”

Momentum may not be as rapid as hoped. Last year the German parliament rejected a bill to legalize an adult-use market, against the background of popular support for cautious reforms. But the Bundestag is expected to return a majority in favour of liberalisation, and the most positive note will be set by the Green Party under Annalena Baerbock, who favours regulated legalisation of cannabis for both medical and recreational uses.

Whatever happens, the movements suggest how entwined the issue of cannabis has become amid Europe’s political classes. With several elections hinging on breakthroughs in cannabis legislation, there is no shortage of advocates willing to put the tolerance of policymakers – and the public – to the test. It also underscores how, in the past two decades or so, cannabis politicking has shifted from single-issue parties into the political mainstream. While cannabis parties have deep and fascinating histories, the politics of cannabis advocacy has also become more politically varied.

While progressive, ecologically inclined, and left-wing parties tend to lead the charge, some proponents of cannabis legalisation are avowedly right-wing and libertarian. Those include Denmark’s Liberal Alliance, which favours regulating cannabis on harm reduction grounds, and Italy’s Five Star Movement, which advocates home cultivation as hedges against the illicit market and the underground economy.

The first wave of single-issue cannabis parties began in earnest in the 1990s and 2000s, and several among them have drifted into the long grass, including Israel’s Green Leaf or Ale Yarok party, which was founded in 1999. It has never been successful, but its journey shows how cannabis politics mature, as in 2012 it decided to promote other liberal policies alongside its cannabis advocacy, and at one point teamed up with Holocaust veterans.

Other single issue pro-cannabis parties also appear to have withered on the vine, including Norway’s Det norske Cannabispartiet, Spain’s Partido Cannabis and the U.K.’s Legalise Cannabis Alliance (LCA). But the latter two had a huge influence on public policy and so achieved their objectives as effective lobbying groups. Indeed, the U.K.’s Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol Party (CISTA) used the British General Election of 2015 to influence other parties to be pro-cannabis in their manifestos.

While some of those were little more than campaigning groups, others proffer cannabis legalisation as a progressive, even radical issue. That includes a new Irish political party, Solidarity – People Before Profit, which has pledged to bring the issue of cannabis legalisation to the Dáil Éireann (Assembly of Ireland) – the first time in eight years that anyone has done so – while the nascent Ireland’s Cannabis Party is also making waves in that country. But with Ireland’s Green Party already lobbying for legalisation, it seems unlikely that a specialist party would be needed – and that is the predicament that cannabis-first parties find themselves in.

Perhaps it is a good thing. As New Frontier Data’s Global Cannabis Report also raises, cannabis reform brings with it a raft of concomitant beneficial effects: “Countries that have moved most smoothly toward more liberal cannabis policies have generally built strong and diverse coalitions across health care, law enforcement, finance, and law, engaged notable policymakers and influencers, and proposed frameworks that are well aligned with the respective local social, economic, and political contexts.”

With the conversation moving from single-issue advocacy to fleshed-out public policies put forward by mainstream parties, cannabis is taking to the political stage as never before.