Eastern Europe’s Evolving Turn Toward Legal Cannabis

By Oliver Bennett, Special Contributor to New Frontier Data

Much of the discussion about the legal cannabis industry in Europe revolves around the dominant Western European states, such as France, Germany, Spain, or the U.K.

But there are other countries in the continent – some in the European Union (EU), others not – making waves in the cannabis industry, and capable of emerging this year as strong regional players.

One is North Macedonia, located in the Balkans and among the newer countries created after the 1991 breakup of the former Yugoslavia. With a population of just over 2 million, the landlocked state is attracting attention for its potential in the cannabis industry, most notably because its Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has put his weight behind an idea to turn capital Skopje into the “Amsterdam in the Balkans”, with legal cannabis available in Dutch-type coffeeshops in the capital, and places like the lakeside resort of Ohrid. The stated aims are to encourage tourism while discouraging the illicit market. While Zaev purportedly has ties to the cannabis industry, he has denied any personal interests behind the move, adding that any recreational market would feature such industry standards as ventilation of premises and proof of origin required for goods.

Zaev’s pronouncement follows a trend of cannabis-friendly moves in the country, indicating that the small republic sees the plant as the basis of a pioneering industry to yield local benefits, particularly in a post-COVID-19 landscape. Macedonia already has a cannabis cultivation sector inspired by Canada’s industry, and since 2016 has allowed medical cannabis sold in pharmacies. In 2018, Vancouver-based Canadian International Cannabis Corp (ICC) acquired the Balkan Cannabis Corp., with a view to Macedonian production of medical cannabis, while meantime acquiring medical cannabis and hemp cultivation licences in neighbouring Bulgaria. With investment from nearby Montenegro, the Balkan Cannabis Corp. has farmland in Macedonia and Bulgaria, and North Macedonia’s Association of Medical Cannabis Growers hopes that to begin exporting cannabis flower through what the ICC calls a “second wave of European cannabis legalisation”.

While Eastern and Central European states have generally been known for social conservatism, changing attitudes afford their taking a pole position of sorts in the European cannabis industry, perhaps earning an edge ahead of their Western European counterparts. Croatia, with a well-developed tourism industry, has legalised medical cannabis since 2015, after having three years earlier decriminalised possession of cannabis for personal use. Recently, Croatia saw a draft law proposed for the complete legalisation of cannabis in both medicinal and recreational settings, with a move to legalise it for personal use (with cultivation of up to nine plants per person), while aiming to promote the cultivation of hemp for commercial purposes. A state-private agency has been proposed to regulate Croatia’s cannabis market, and former minister for the environment Mirela Holy has emerged as a motivating political force by dint of her role as president of the Croatian Social Democratic party’s Green Development Council.

Thus, the Balkan nations are economically motivated to liberalise their cannabis markets through both inbound tourism and trade. While their Mediterranean climates are propitious for open-air cultivation,  there nevertheless some negative perceptions to surmount, so work remains toward gaining trust throughout the region. Albania, in particular, has for decades been infamous as Europe’s major producer of illicit cannabis, to the extent that the EU has demanded that it clean up and enforce against what some have termed the ”Colombia of Europe”’. Yet it, too, is now considering legalising cannabis for medical use, which could promote a broader conversation about the future of the sector.

Another emerging state is Georgia in the Caucasus, which in 2018 approved full decriminalisation and legalisation. Its cannabis policy has long been draconian per the strict social conservatism characteristic in the region, but now the state – located on the cusp of Europe and Asia – is the first (if underpublicized) emerging Eastern European-identified country to have legalised cannabis. Though cannabis is not fully decriminalised there, Georgia’s model stands as a template for adoption by others in the region.

Ukraine – Europe’s largest country if excluding Russia – is another emerging nation leaning to support legalization of medical cannabis, especially after the advocacy of a much-loved TV presenter, Yanina Sokolova, who used it in a public fight against cancer. Canzon Europe has signed an agreement to distribute medical cannabis to hundreds of pharmacies in Bulgaria. While the Czech Republic has overseen a popular adoption of medical cannabis, other Central European countries, including Hungary, yet maintain comparatively conservative and rigid views about cannabis. Assuming the success of legal cannabis in Croatia and North Macedonia, however, the post-pandemic ‘20s may yet see wholesale reforms roar throughout the region.