Denmark’s Pilot Program Introduces Adult Use to Scandinavia

By Oliver Bennett, Special Contributor to New Frontier Data

Though proponents recently held hope that liberalising movements in Germany and Malta, respectively, would lead to a domino effect for legal cannabis among European neighbours like Luxembourg, other circumstances have held pre-emptive sway.

It simply did not happen in a manner either expected nor hoped for, whether impeded by a proposed Italian referendum being rejected by the country’s high court, or swamped by the violence and fallout of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A month in since Vladimir Putin’s incursion, inflation has reached nearly 10% in several countries, mainly through rising oil and gas prices.

Danish Plan for Recreational Cannabis

Nevertheless, activity for the continent’s legal cannabis industry persists in pockets of Scandinavia — from Denmark to Sweden, Norway, and Finland, Russia’s northwestern neighbour.

Last month, Danish officials proposed a five-year, adult-use cannabis pilot plan. The policy aim within a five-year time frame is to sell legal, domestically produced cannabis for adult use, available through state-owned retail outlets similar to dispensary models seen in state markets among the United States.

As presented last month to the Dutch parliament (Folketinget) with support shared among all five of its political parties, the pilot project calls for centrally located, urban dispensaries staffed by trained budtenders to share information (including medical uses and responsible consumption) with citizens who could possess and grow their own cannabis kept at home.

In sponsoring the bill, officials cited statistics from the National Board of Health, including that 41% of the Danish population under age 40 has consumed cannabis at least once, and that the nationwide number of people reporting doing so within the previous month has doubled since 1994. In fact, parliament officials noted, the “existing ban on cannabis has not limited neither consumption nor sale of cannabis products in Denmark since the introduction of a ban 40 years ago.”

Thanks to a 2018 pilot program (since renewed) for a medical-use market, Denmark has already performed some organizational groundwork for its recreational model. The government has reportedly issued more than 40 cultivation licenses, and identified up to 200,000 square meters (about 50 acres) nationwide that could be dedicated for sufficient cultivation to make Denmark a sizeable cannabis producer.

In a preemptive effort to eliminate social harms from illicit drug-dealing gang activity, the policymakers intend for both the quality and prices of the state’s cannabis products to favourably compete with those offered in the illicit market. Assessments of progress would be evaluated throughout the pilot program, while proceeds from sales would be reserved for substance-abuse and recovery treatments.

As a country with Scandinavian progressive qualities – the epicentre of the socially conscious Nordic Model of government and an exemplar of the social bonds that create happiness – it is a surprise, perhaps, that Denmark has not come to this point already.

Christiania’s Cannabis Legacy

After all, in Copenhagen there has long existed a model in the so-called “free town” commune of Christiania, a 19-acre enclave in a former army base occupied by squatters in 1971, which in the subsequent half-century has evolved into an alternative community of about 1,000 residents. Its reputation for illicit cannabis (and other substances) is such that its main thoroughfare is known as Pusher Street.

To undermine the illicit market’s space, which relies on illegal back-door procurement, the pilot plan will incorporate best practices and lessons learned from the U.S., Canada, and Portugal. Along with trying to freeze out Christiana’s dealers, the government also intends to undercut the Netherlands’ notorious coffeeshops (which, while offering legal retail sales, still rely heavily on grey-market wholesale sales). This too, is part of a traditional Norden approach to social policy: caution and risk-aversion.

Logically, Denmark’s engagement is gaining interest from investors. Two large European productions have made a shareholders agreement with the Amsterdam-based JuicyFields crowdfunding platform to develop and build European Union (EU)-approved, good manufacturing practice (GMP)-compliant greenhouses with plans to produce an annual 40,000 kilograms of dried flowers. Aurora Europe, too, has a facility in Denmark which started producing in late 2020, in order to involve Aurora Nordic in a French medical programme by expanding its footprint and supplying medical cannabis in the form of dried flowers and extracts from its 9,200-square-mile greenhouse space in Odense, Denmark.

Scandinavia’s Conservative Reluctance Persists

That is the commercial beachhead for now, as policy positions across the rest of Scandinavia still lag behind. In Sweden and Finland, support for recreational use remains among the lowest in Europe. In particular, the Swedish strategy is to aim for a drug-free society; consequently, cannabis is treated as dangerous narcotic as the Swedish system does not differentiate between so-called hard or soft drugs, and medical cannabis is allowed only under special circumstances.

Fewer than 1 among 5 Swedes (17%) report having tried cannabis, and their political leaders have gone on record pledging that Sweden would be among the last European nations to legalise cannabis. CBD is illegal in Sweden if it contains THC; CBD oil not containing THC resides in a marketing limbo where it is somehow legal for purchase yet illegal for sale. Sweden has long had a strong system of state control over intoxicants (including its Systembolaget system of state-controlled alcohol sales), demonstrating some of the Nordic model’s more paternalistic aspects.

For its part, Finland is somewhat more liberal. Last September, Finland’s Green League party called for a policy of legalization of the domestic cannabis market – marking a first for a political party in the Finnish parliament to call for such a policy. Though it remains unlikely to proceed anywhere in the near future, it nevertheless represents a softening toward cannabis.  Though Finland legalized medical cannabis in 2008, a 2019 petition drive for adult-use cannabis was defeated.

In Norway, too, there are similarly tentative movements being made towards repealing long-held restrictions on cannabis, and early last year the Norwegian Liberal Party proposed a bill to end criminalization and make low-level possession a civil offense.

“Decades of repression have taught us that punishment doesn’t work,” said Education Minister Guri Melby, and the country allows for possession of cannabis in small amounts.

For its part, Iceland (geographically distant but often considered part of Scandinavia with strong links to the Nordic bloc), maintains tight restrictions on cannabis, though there seems little doubt that the Nordic bloc will eventually lean toward Denmark’s pilot scheme – possibly precipitating its own regional version of the domino effect throughout Scandinavia.