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EU Signals Increasing Shift in Attitude Towards Cannabis Reform

The European Commission (EC) last week partially approved a new ‘European Citizens Initiative’ focused on cannabis reform, in a move marking an increasing acknowledgment of the changing landscape in regards to cannabis regulation across the European Union (EU).

This was emphasised by a recent report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), which laid out its intentions to not only increase its capacity for monitoring developments in cannabis regulation across member states, but take a more active role in providing policymakers with information on cannabis reform.

Acknowledging the trend of ‘countries increasingly exploring alternatives for prohibition’, the EMCDDA said: “This means that questions on what constitutes an appropriate policy response to cannabis have become both topical and important.”

What happened?

Last week the EC voted to register two of the three proposals put forward by a European Citizens Initiative (ECI), dubbed the European Cannabis Initiative.

ECIs are a mechanism that were introduced in 2007 as part of the Lisbon Treaty, designed to allow EU citizens to have a direct influence on policy making decisions.

They must be initiated by EU citizens residing in at least seven different member countries, which in this case included Francesca Capuozzo of EUmans, Georg Wurth of the German Hemp Association, and drug policy specialist Natalie O’Regan, among others.

The European Cannabis Initiative was initially submitted by the group on January 12, 2024, and makes the case that the ‘lack of significant progress in the containment of illicit narcotics around Europe imposes a radical rethinking of the approach that for decades has not reduced drug demand and supply’.

“There is no evidence that toughening penalties has brought about a more effective European drugs control system, while it has constructed resources to reduce the risks and/or harms connected to problematic drugs use. This ECI intends to address some of the reasons why that happened,” the submission read.

It also referenced numerous examples of a growing shift in drug policy across EU Member states taking ‘innovative approaches to human right-centred drug policies which the EU has adopted. With this in mind, the ECI put forward an agenda consisting of three points.

The first was to convene a ‘transeuropean Citizens Assembly’ regarding cannabis policies throughout the EU.

While this format has recently had some success in Ireland, with the Citizens Assembly recommending the government ‘minimise, or potentially completely remove’ criminal convictions for drug possession, this point was rejected by the EC.

According to the EC, this request ‘falls outside the Commission’s powers to submit a proposal for a legal act.’

However, the second and third requests submitted were successfully registered. These included calls to:

  • Foster access to medical cannabis based on scientific evidence and the experiences of patients, and to allow patients the transportation of cannabis and any of its derivatives prescribed for therapeutic uses throughout the EU in order to ensure the full enjoyment of the right to health.
  • Allocate the necessary resources for researching cannabis – including in herbal and traditional medicine – for its therapeutic uses and to share them internationally.

Now these points have been successfully registered, the ECI’s organisers will have six months to open a ‘signature collection’.

This will require the group to collect at least 1m verified signatures from at least seven different EU member states within 12 months, with a minimum number of signatures for each country based on its population.

EMCDDA looks to ‘support policymakers’ on cannabis

In the same week, the EMCDDA published its ‘Single Programming Document’, laying out its planned activities over the next two years in what it described as a ‘undoubtedly, the most transformative period in the life of the agency to date’.

The organisation is due to be replaced by the European Union Drugs Agency (EUDA) on July 02, 2024, with ‘an expanded and reinforced mandate’, a 40% increase in staff members and an 80% increase in budget.

While its role is far more focused on monitoring and tackling the illicit drugs market, the organisation is seemingly positioning itself to examine the impact of what it expects to be an ongoing trend of cannabis policy liberalisation across Europe.

Going further, it also plans to create a ‘toolkit’ which includes ‘resources to support policymakers with the implementation of evidence-based decisions in the cannabis policy field’.

The organisation states that in 2024 and beyond it will ‘scale up its focus on developing resources in the area of cannabis policies and interventions’, due to changes in the cannabis market over recent years which have seen cannabis products become ‘increasingly diverse in Europe’.

“These developments in the European cannabis market are taking place within a global context of countries increasingly exploring alternatives for prohibition and some moving towards regulated or legalised recreational cannabis markets. Some EU Member States have started to change their policy approach to recreational cannabis use,” it continued.

“Recent developments show that different options exist, including systems with criminal penalties for users, systems with permissions for home growing and use in private, and systems with state-controlled or commercial production and sales.

“In recent years, the EMCDDA has accommodated an increasing number of requests from Member States in this field, and has provided support to national initiatives, specifically with cannabis indicator development and monitoring of the impact of cannabis policy changes in this area.”

With this in mind, it says that ‘an appropriate data infrastructure’ is needed to monitor this change and to examine the impact on public health and the illicit market’.

Over the next two years, it plans to build the foundations for a ‘cannabis policy toolkit’, aimed at better assisting ‘policymakers and planners with cannabis policy development and evaluation in their countries’.

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