Greece, Positioning Itself to Prosper in a Post-Pandemic Europe

By Oliver Bennett, Special Contributor to New Frontier Data

Despite its hot climate, herb-strewn hills and popularity as a tourist destination, Greece has not thus far rushed to the forefront of the movement to popularise cannabis in Europe.

That may change should a newly drafted proposal take effect in the Mediterranean country. With its passage would come the concept of tourism in the form of a medical cannabis vacation, somewhat like Nevada in the U.S. – the first state to promote a reciprocal “medical tourist visa” encouraging medical cannabis patients to medicate with cannabis.

The plan would potentially allow health insurance policies to cover cannabis treatments while patients took vacation from other parts of Europe – most notably northern Europe, traditionally a wellspring of tourists to the country. And though it is not the first time that a Nevada-style framework has been raised in Greece, this time seems its likeliest for success.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism had grown hugely, particularly among older northern Europeans – there were 34 million tourists in 2019 against a domestic population of 10.7 million – making such a move potentially lucrative for Greece once the coronavirus yields its grip on international travel.

Precise estimates for Greece’s legal cannabis market are difficult to devise, given that only sales of medical cannabis is currently allowed in the country with an annual cannabis usage rate of 3.4%. Nevertheless, an extrapolation of both New Frontier Data’s numbers for Greece’s domestic total addressable market (TAM) of 314,000 and the nation’s tourism statistics (reporting 34 million visitors) offers some basis for projection.

While Greece’s expanding medical access for tourists on vacation would benefit those visitors owning medical cards from other legal countries (especially for oft-visiting Germans), their numbers would nevertheless remain relatively paltry in comparison to what sales would be generated by the large tourism industry with full access to a legal adult-use market.

That noted, liberalisation does continue to trend in Greece, enabling inward investment. The Greek government legalised cannabis for medical purposes in 2017 – the sixth EU country to do so – and by 2018 allowed cannabis to be cultivated and produced within its borders.

Nevertheless, companies have not been spared from having to jump through bureaucratic hoops, – such as setting up a Greek company for land purchasing, getting an operations license as well as a medical license from the National Organisation for Medicines, and obtaining a five-year installation permit. Now the Greek government has suggested plans to eliminate some of its red tape, creating what has been mooted as a potential €360 million investment value while bringing plentiful jobs.

The Greece liberalisation is creating a lot of interest in the eastern Mediterranean. Regional competitors already reside on Malta (which is seeking to lead the agenda with a potential legalisation programme), and in nearby independent North Macedonia (not to be confused with the Greek region of the same name), which is pushing hard to become a noted producer of medical cannabis. Greece would also compete with western Mediterranean rivals including Spain and Portugal, though recreational cannabis use remains illegal in Greece.

As with other European countries, Greece is seeking an economic bounce: It was hit very heavily in the credit crunch of 2008, and subsequently by the pandemic. Some believe that those crisises fed into the liberalised status of cannabis – being recategorized from a Table A drug to a Table B drug – and as elsewhere the Greek government aims to get the post-pandemic economy going by boosting production and exports, including cannabis. Now the industry is congregating at secure sites in northern Greece to grow and process medical cannabis, mostly in (Greek) Macedonia, not far from the second city of Thessaloniki. To bypass extant domestic legislation, Greece’s medical cannabis would be subject to the laws in the country importing it – thereby boosting production and exports without unduly disrupting the status quo at home. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has promised a more business-friendly environment, and while the pandemic has hindered progress, the government aims to reform the laws around cultivation and exports. Thus, companies can begin constructing production facilities – thereby facilitating an export market per aspirations for a more mature domestic market to follow.

Greece’s first medicinal cannabis cultivation licences were awarded in November 2018 to Bioprocann. By late 2019, the country had issued 26 licences, and continued to do so since. Most recently, the U.S. public company Kaya Holdings announced plans to build a 225,000-square foot cultivation site in Thebes to make a brand called Kaya Kannabis to EU-GMP pharmaceutical-grade standards. More overseas investment is expected from Canada, Israel and The Netherlands.

At the street level, cannabis remains illicitly popular in Greece. Last autumn activists created a scene in when they planted cannabis along the Athens Great Walk, and in city centre locations. Greece’s first cannabis vending machine was launched in 2019, featuring CBD products in the centre of Athens.

Amid the rise of cannabis’ popular reputation, it has been suggested by historians that Greece’s long tradition of cannabis has been more ingrained than formerly understood, including its ancient use as a remedy for various ailments from medical and psychoactive conditions to veterinary applications.

If so, cannabis may soon again be counted on what the doctor has ordered for Greece’s welfare.