Fall Elections to Sway Momentum for Czech Republic’s Legal Cannabis Reforms
By Oliver Bennett, Special Contributor to New Frontier Data
The Czech Republic, ranking ninth among the 27 European Union member states with its population of 10.7 million, is making waves in the cannabis sector – and an upcoming national election may prove pivotal to its domestic industry.
In June, the Czech Parliament agreed to amend the country’s medical cannabis and hemp laws. Beyond allowing for the export of medical cannabis, it also made the case for medical cannabis to be more widely cultivated, and to allow digital cannabis prescriptions to help streamline supplies and enable wider take-up among patients.
It ran ahead of October’s general elections, which Europe’s cannabis proponents are keeping their eyes keenly on. The movers behind the legislative changes were the opposition Pirate Party, which has long campaigned for legalisation, which (in a coalition with the Mayors and Independents parties) is expected to give the current ruling coalition a stiff contest in elections on October 8-9. If the Pirates prevail, party leaders pledge to implement a plan to decriminalise cannabis production and consumption within two years. Beyond the party’s aims for harm-reduction reforms, it believes that the current ban on cannabis production loses out on approximately €58 million ($68.5 million USD) per year, not counting lost tax revenues from same.
A win is certainly possible, as Czechia (by its short form) has long been a pioneer in cannabis. Since 2010 possession for less than 10 grams of cannabis or cultivating five or fewer plants has been decriminalized (though as a civil offence it may face steep fines); medical cannabis has been legal since 2013.
Indeed, buying cannabis seeds is also legal, and with cultural and tourist hotspots like Prague, it has been suggested that Czechia could become a cannabis tourist centre to rival the Netherlands – (though the notion remains a domestically divisive subject).
Other push factors are favoring medical cannabis: Last year, a ruling that 90% of the cost of medical cannabis (of up to 30 grams per month) must be covered by insurance agencies drove further growth, and the first months of this year saw twice the amount of medical cannabis used in year-over-year comparison to 2020. The State Agency for Medical Cannabis in January reported that a total of 67 kilograms of medical cannabis had been prescribed last year (nearly a fourfold increase from 17 kg in 2019), and that the rolls of cannabis-prescribed patients increased from less than 500 in 2019 to 1,103 by last December, with concomitant growth in the numbers of doctors prescribing cannabis (from 78 to 123).
The Czech Republic is relatively cannabis-friendly, with an historical survey suggesting that it hosts Europe’s largest per-capita base of young cannabis users (i.e., ages 15-34), with more than one-fifth of those reporting having used cannabis at least once, and an estimated 550,000 Czechs growing cannabis at home for personal consumption. In October 2020, 54% of those surveyed by the newspaper Prazsky Denik reported having used cannabis products, with 52% favouring legalisation.
Meanwhile, the country faces supply-chain restrictions for medical cannabis. The state-tendered producer Elkoplast Slušovice is a near-monopoly, as is distributor Alliance Healthcare, with supplementary exports coming from Aurora Cannabis and Canopy Growth. Each grower must receive a licence from the governmental State Institute for Drug Control (SUKL), and only can sell within the organization. In a program that mandates a legal limit of five cannabis plants, producers – even cottage manufacturers – could grow 10 times as many plants, thus the new legislation holds potential to break through the bureaucratic deadlock.
Should that happen, it will represent the latest in a legacy of Czech innovation. The Prague-based International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute (ICCI) was launched in 2015 to create a medical cannabis research hub, and “enable scientific examination of the relation between bioactive cannabis compounds and the effect on the human organism.”
As explained by Farard Darver, head of UK-based Healthcare International Research (HIR) which produces CBD cosmetic and health products distributed in Czechia, “the Czechs were the first scientists to discover CBD, one of many cannabinoids found in the hemp plant, in 1955”. As New Frontier Data reported last fall, Prague saw distribution innovation in the form of vending machines selling CBD oils, cosmetics edibles, hemp, and CBD drinks. The recent death of Czech scientist Tomáš Zábranský lost a considerable global figure in medical cannabis research and a powerful advocate for its legalization.
Despite the country’s relative affinity for them, further Czech cannabis reforms are not guaranteed come October. In January, a cross-party proposal to allow residents to store 1.25 kg of dried flower at home, and to carry up to 30 grams in public (including the right to freely share with other adults as gifts) was defeated. That the country (along with neighbouring Slovakia) is a big producer of methamphetamine concerns many citizens despite a counterargument suggesting that decriminalisation could wean consumers from the illicit market.
The fall election is expected to be closely contested.