Whither the winds of the European cannabis industry post-pandemic?

Whither the winds of the European cannabis industry post-pandemic?
© iStock/Stefan Tomic

The European Cannabis Association is setting its sights on harmonising the cannabis regulatory environment across the continent.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a generation- if not century-shifting event. Much like the ‘Spanish flu’ a century ago, the politics if not the processes of everyday life will change, perhaps almost unrecognisably, as the modern world meets the challenge of a continually mutating virus. Where cannabis as an industry – as well as its impact on science and healthcare beyond that – falls is still an open question. However, one thing is very clear. The plant, if not the downstream drugs to come from it, has been globally accepted as having medical efficacy. In Europe, however, the transition, which has come about over the last half-decade, is still plagued with mines, trapdoors, and setbacks, primarily because of a lack of regulatory homogeneity.

Prohibition, in other words, is generally over at least philosophically. But its hangover affects everyday issues – from regulating the industry properly, to supply chain problems.

The goal of the European Cannabis Association, a lobbying non-profit with offices in Brussels, is to integrate cannabis into the proper regulatory channels – and finally create a cohesive groundwork, if not ground rules, for the industry to finally come into its own – even if starting with the medical conversation.

Beyond that, it is also clear that recreational reform, even if only as it applies to CBD, is in the room and on the agenda. When it comes to the THC conversation, however, beyond Holland, Luxembourg and Switzerland are both moving towards a date certain for the beginning of their own recreational trials. That these are also based on medical data is yet another indication of how impactful the medical debate actually is.

The goal of the ECA is to help craft a European wide regulatory framework – what we are calling the European Cannabis Act – to drive the industry forward in key places. This groundwork will also have to address the following issues.

What is cannabis?

In Europe, generally speaking, cannabis as a plant genus is still considered to be a narcotic. This is beginning to change, however. Last year, the European Commission finally issued a long-awaited decision on at least cannabidiol (CBD). In a big win for the cosmetics industry, it has also recently decided to clear cannabigerol (CBG).

How these decisions will trickle down into sovereign governments is a big issue – but they are a good start. For example, while it is clear in recent court cases that at the federal level the German courts are willing to respect the EU ruling that CBD is not a narcotic, it is also clear that vendors who do not respect local regulations on the same – starting with THC content – are still highly liable to prosecution.

Increased cross-border trade will begin to clear some of these issues too – although unfortunately still via legal action (see France’s Kanavape court case in 2020). However, it is our intention as an organisation to begin to try to clarify the rules even more – and to enable national governments to adopt these resolutions quickly into national legislation.

How to deal with THC

Beyond the overall classification of the plant itself, of course, there is the outstanding bugbear in the room – namely tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the best-known cannabinoid in the cannabis plant, which certainly has ‘narcotic’ qualities. In Europe so far, THC has been regulated as a narcotic even where other cannabinoids are treated as pharmaceuticals. In turn, this has opened up an entire new conversation in the global industry about supply chain suitability for medical products. EU-GMP is the standard towards which the world is moving simply because of the value of the German and European markets – however, there is still little homogeneity across European countries on standards. This needs to be examined and regulated on a regional level, with a clear path to acceptance on a sovereign state one. Otherwise, Prohibition-era regulations will continue to trip up market development.

One example of this problem right now is the lack of conformity – even within one country – about GMP standards. Another is that countries across Europe are still challenging the legitimacy of each other’s GMP processes when it comes to cannabis. The fact that this is the case has already created challenges for one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical producers who graduated to medical cannabis several years ago. It will continue to be an issue for every producer in countries outside of Germany wishing to import here.

The CBD conversation

While CBD can certainly be used medically (and is increasingly being used that way across Europe and the UK), this cannabinoid and the hemp discussion have regulatory issues of their own.

The biggest one still looming is still Novel Foods – that is, registering products and extracts per the regulations that apply to food and plantstuffs that were not in wide circulation in the EU prior to 1997. How this actually applies to this section of the industry is also still a highly contentious issue. While Novel Food applications have certainly been filed both in the EU and in the now-divorced UK, there are still many issues now pending, beginning with whether CBD extract can be defined as novel when it is derived from a European seed and further extracted via mainstream extraction procedures.

It may well be as the industry matures that this regulatory requirement is removed – particularly given the similarity of applications, not to mention new scientific examinations funded by the government. See the recent German decision to offer government funding for research into CBD extractions.

Hybrid issues

Recreational reform will undoubtedly throw more wrinkles into the middle of all of this.

Edibles will pose an especially interesting dilemma – will they fall under GMP or Novel Foods regulation? The answer to that question is likely to be found first in recreational markets – but it should be addressed on a regional basis. The discussion so far has been focused on the hemp plant and CBD. In the short term, the THC used for edibles and other products may well come from GMP producers in Switzerland (or across a border with another producing country in Europe not to mention further afield).

Regardless, the fact that these two countries are moving forward irrevocably changes the entire tenor of the debate across Europe.

Politically, cannabis reform is likely to show up in the national elections (if not shortly thereafter) in Germany, particularly if the CDU faces as much of a challenge as it seems to be of late. This is even more of a reason why basic procedural standards need to be put in place across Europe, starting with the medical discussion in the short term.

Other issues

The fact of the matter is that the world is just beginning to accept cannabis and integrate it into existing regulations. However, it is also clear that as this conversation proceeds, existing regulations may themselves be challenged. Cannabis as a plant, if not as a food or medicine, was deliberately left out of the mix in the last century as all of these systems and industries formalised.

It is a challenge of this century to include it once again.

Marguerite Arnold
European Cannabis Association

This article is from issue 18 of Health Europa. Click here to get your free subscription today.

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