Quantifying Europe’s Cannabis Consumers

By Oliver Bennett, Special Contributor to New Frontier Data

New Frontier Data’s latest report, Cannabis Consumers in America: Dynamics Shaping Normalization in 2022, takes a look at the demographics and tendencies of U.S. users of cannabis in all its forms. In doing so, it demonstrates the truism that “consumption patterns are normalizing across all markets” – which paints a picture of growing acceptance and heralds the mainstreaming of cannabis. It’s a largely positive view chiming with industry expectations for opportunities.

But what of Europe? Who are the cannabis users here, do they have the same profile as in the U.S., and are they as accepted as they appear to be in North America? Generally speaking– as could be expected – Europe is at an earlier stage of development in the cannabis space.

Firstly, and importantly, the prevalence of consumers in Europe is lower. While in Europe it has been estimated that more than 30 million people have consumed cannabis at least once in the past year, regular adult users number under 1 in 10, and across Europe’s various countries span from between about 4% to over 11% of respective populations, in contrast to 18% in the U.S. (2019 figures).

Within the European sample there are also anomalies. For one salient example, Malta, which last December became the first EU member to legalize adult-use cannabis, is – somewhat curiously given its legislative liberalism – at the bottom of usage chart, while Spain is unsurprisingly at the top. In itself, this shows that in some European territories, cannabis is not as ingrained in daily life as it is in the U.S., and remains subject to many variables across the continent, including the prevailing social conservatism of each territory, legal strictures, and sheer availability.

Despite such, attitudes towards recreational cannabis are shifting in Europe, with an estimated population of 747.8 million (2021) across the continent, the potential of a recreational market – not to mention the far more accepted medical cannabis and CBD markets – remains huge.

As detailed in Recreational Europe, a recent report from Europe’s First Wednesdays group for cannabis networkers and investors (produced in collaboration with Curaleaf International, the Ince law firm, and German medical cannabis distributor Cansativa Group), explores the dynamics of European attitudes towards cannabis. The report was paired with the launch of The European Cannabis Legalisation Tracker, touted as the first pan-European annual poll gauging public opinion about recreational cannabis.

The report compares North America with Europe, citing the professionalization of the American industry and how it has gained legitimacy in the eyes of the law and mainstream society. The business-centered approach in the U.S. and Canada has led to a more alluring environment for investors than in Europe, where cannabis by and large is still considered a fringe issue. And while acknowledging that North America is “in many ways not a perfect match for Europe”, the April release suggests that it does provide a model of sorts.

Indeed, the report summarised here suggests a growing acceptance of cannabis from the 9,000-strong survey with 55% of Europeans supporting the legalization of adult-use cannabis, and not far off of 30% of respondents being interested in trying cannabis for themselves. That strikes a similar ratio to when the first U.S. legal cannabis markets were being rolled out in 2012 in Colorado and Washington, indicating that Europe is at a tipping point.

Yet the report, issued by research consultancy Savanta ComRes, found that the eight European markets surveyed – France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, and the U.K. – showed wide divergence. Italy showed the most support for legalization at 60%, albeit with Portugal (59%) and Switzerland (58%) vanishingly close behind. Switzerland has just approved its first adult-use pilot project, with about 400 monitored users in the city of Basel allowed to buy cannabis from pharmacies. In doing so, the Swiss state hopes to find “alternative regulatory forms” for cannabis.

At the same time, the report also shows surprising discrepancies, with respondents in Germany and the Netherlands representing the biggest opponents of legalization at 29%, and more expectedly, the U.K. and France even lower at 27%.

Key considerations among critics included social-harm concerns ranging from issues about driving under the influence, to increased use among youths. Meanwhile, as seen in the U.S., a European decline in alcohol sales may have some association with a rise in cannabis consumption, suggesting some measure of substitution at work.

Overall, the First Wednesday survey shows a gathering head of steam in Europe’s cannabis sector, but also a lot of divergence across the continent – a lack of homogeneity, it concludes, that could “represent an obstacle to creating a prosperous industry”.

Some of the report’s findings ring similar to in the U.S.: As with the New Frontier Data’s Cannabis Consumers in America, cannabis users in Europe tend to be mostly male. They also tend to have lower incomes, whether as students, unemployed personnel, or self-employed workers.

Medical cannabis consumers in Europe, meanwhile, range in use (between 2%-26%) among the sexes, and in some countries – e.g., Denmark and Italy – show a preponderance of women.  And as in the U.S., there are evidence markers that cannabis consumers in Europe are more than twice as likely to self-identify as LGBTQ – a point also made in Cannabis Consumers in America. But there are similar social justice connotations: In the U.K. last year, it was found that Black people were 12x more likely to be prosecuted for cannabis possession than were White people for similar offenses.

There are key distinctions between the U.S. and Europe in modes of consumption. Cannabis Consumers in America cites a tendency for U.S. users to smoke flower alone as well as in vaporisers or in food and drink, with the message that “flower remains king”. In the EU, however, smokers are 4x more likely to use cannabis with tobacco – a move no doubt associated with the European tradition to consume hashish (i.e., cannabis resin) from producers like Morocco and Lebanon – rather than the plant itself. Vaping, too, is less popular in Europe than in North America.

But in Europe as in North America, the great hope for cannabis is currently in the wellness sector, particularly in terms as described in Cannabis Consumers in America that “the primary drivers of use… [span] relaxation, pain management, improving sleep outcomes, treating a medical condition, or improving overall wellness”. A new CBD spa in Switzerland may prove to be an outlier for many more such inroads in Europe’s rapidly reviving hospitality industry, leading to an upmarketing trend for cannabis in Europe – a slow but inevitable move towards a situation that’s more in line with North America’s normalized markets.