Cannabis on the Global Stage: How 7 Countries Are Upping Their Game

These countries are updating their cannabis policies. Will the U.S. ever join the crowd?

cannabis, global, australia

Global market predictors speculate the worldwide cannabis industry could be worth $55 billion by 2025. Many countries have updated their outdated drug policies, moving cannabis businesses from illicit black-market operations to a cottage industry. Eventually, inevitably, cannabis (and hemp) are destined to become global commodities. How will the U.S. stack up if federal prohibition is lifted?

Australia 

Australia legalized medical cannabis in 2016. Since then, companies like Medical Cannabis Ltd. (VitaHemp), AusCann Group Ltd., BOD Australia Ltd.Botanix Pharmaceuticals, Eve InvestmentsCreso PharmaAlgae.Tec, and MedLab Clinical have emerged. Many have deep roots—and pockets—in diverse other industries, including biofuels, bio-pharmaceuticals, agriculture, technology, and even mining. 

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Government support for the cannabis sector encourages overseas companies to enter the market. Israel-based e-Sense Labs, which primarily develops synthetic terpenes and other plant compounds, is working with Young Henrys Brewing Company, based in Newtown, New South Wales, to create a cannabis-infused beer. Colorado-based Elixinol Global maintains an Australian headquarters in Sydney, from which the company distributes hemp-based CBD products to twenty-seven other countries. 

A January decision to allow exports of Australian-grown cannabis has fueled the market. Australia already produces about half the world’s legal poppy crop, which supplies the raw material used to create opiate medications. 

Colombia 

If any country in the world should have a zero-tolerance policy about psychoactive substances, Colombia would be the country. Since the 1970s, the U.S.-led “war on drugs,” primarily focused on illegal cocaine trafficking and the associated organized criminal activity perpetrated by drug cartels, has resulted in many thousands of deaths. There is no end to the war in sight. 

The black market for illegal narcotics remains a major concern for the Colombian government, but with the emergence of global cannabis legalization, officials are taking a different stance on marijuana: They’d like legendary Colombian Gold to be sanctioned and sold on the open market. 

In 2016, Colombia’s congress passed legislation that allows domestic cannabis use and export. In January, the Colombian government issued thirty-three cannabis cultivation licenses; almost half allow growers to produce psychoactive strains. Officials are hoping farmers and individuals who traffic in illegal drugs will see the benefits of doing legal business, leading to a reduction in illegal activity. 

The weather, as well as the favorable regulatory climate, are attractive components for crop growers. In the 1990s, several U.S.-based floriculture companies moved cut-flower growing operations to Colombia, establishing the country’s global dominance in long-stemmed rose production. Canadian companies PharmaCielo and ICC Labs, as well as Australia’s Creso Pharma, already have established cannabis licenses in Colombia. 

Determined to supply the worldwide legal market, Colombian companies have extended their reach to work with distributors in Canada and other legal markets. 

Greece 

Subjected to a decade of economic crisis, with unemployment topping 20 percent since 2012, Greece is eager to benefit from a billion-dollar global industry. In late March, Parliament approved legislation allowing the production of medical cannabis. At the beginning of April, medical marijuana products were made available at Greek pharmacies under a new pilot program. Officials expect to approve legislation soon that will allow Greek companies to export medical cannabis. 

Agricultural production and distribution company Golden Greece Holdings is overseeing a planned cannabis cultivation facility scheduled to begin operation as early as this summer. The project, which reportedly is funded by a group of investors from Canada, Kazakhstan, Poland, and Israel, will focus on cultivation, extraction, and production of cannabis products and is expected to bring 2,000 jobs to the region around Veria, Macedonia, in the northern part of the country. 

Greek officials have said local job-seekers will be hired and trained in cannabis production over a two- to three-year period. Officials also are considering reforms to recreational marijuana laws. Currently, medical marijuana in Greece, as in several other countries, is available only in extracted or edible form. 

Jamaica 

In the home of reggae and ganja icon Bob Marley (whose youngest son Damien owns the U.S.-based Marley Natural and is part of the investment group that owns the legendary High Times magazine) and the global center of Rastafarianism, government officials are wasting no time in overcoming obstacles that stand in the way of establishing a cannabis industry. 

The Cannabis Licensing Agency (CLA) has been formed to oversee “implementation of regulations for licenses, permits, and other authorizations for the cultivation, processing, distribution, sale, and transportation of ganja for medicinal, scientific, and therapeutic purposes,” according to the government agency Jamaican Social Investment Fund. The CLA is working with officials in the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture, and Fisheries. 

“There is a sense in which there needs to be an advanced conversation between both ministries to ensure there is no intention to break any rules, but there is intention to ensure that we are not left behind in the aggressive growth that is taking place in the [cannabis and hemp] sector,” the Honorable Audley Shaw, minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture, and Fisheries, said during an April meeting about agricultural practices. 

Jamaica’s chief agricultural export is sugar cane, and the island nation hopes to diversify its commercial agricultural base with other export crops including soybeans, citrus, castor beans, cannabis, and hemp. In February, Jamaican producers Kaya Farms and Timeless Herbal Care harvested the first-ever legal cannabis crops. 

Spain 

Technically, cannabis use is prohibited in Spain. However, individuals 21 or older have a constitutional right to do what they like with their bodies as long as their activities do not harm others. In addition, a liberally interpreted and somewhat vague legislative act allowed for “personal use” of cannabis in a “private environment.” Enabled by these legal loopholes, the first cannabis social clubs (CSCs) emerged in the early 1990s. 

Without consistent federal cannabis policy or regulation, CSCs have flourished and even attracted cannabis tourism from around the world, although they are under constant threat of federal prosecution. 

By 2017, the city of Barcelona reportedly harbored 300 CSCs where members purchase and consume cannabis, with some clubs listing thousands of private members. Annual cannabis industry revenue in Spain for the year was estimated at about €60 million, roughly equivalent to USD $72 million. When U.S.-based online portal WeedMaps expanded into Europe, Spain was the first country on the platform. 

In December 2017, Spain’s Supreme Court ruled cannabis social club activities violated Spanish Penal Code articles pertaining to illicit drugs, leaving the CSCs in legal uncertainty. Uneven enforcement of poorly defined policy has pro-CSC advocates calling for clarification of federal laws. In independent regions of Spain, including Catalonia, the Basque country, and the Canary Islands, local officials have not subjected CSCs to prosecution and club operators are working with officials to create new policy standards. 

The Netherlands 

Amsterdam may have been the world’s first modern cannabis destination, famous for its cannabis-vending coffee shops, red light district, and the drug culture that has flourished there in a legal gray area since the late 1960s. 

The emergence of the legal cannabis industry means times are changing in the liberal Dutch enclave. Updated regulations closed Amsterdam’s oldest coffee shop, the Mellow Yellow, at the beginning of 2017 after fifty years of operation. Under new zoning regulations, the shop’s location was deemed too close to a nearby hair stylist academy; twenty-eight other coffee shops were too close to schools or other prohibited locations. 

Local officials implemented the new policies in order to cooperate with the Netherlands federal government’s plans to enforce a program called Weed Pass, which prohibits tourists from accessing cannabis in restricted areas. Amsterdam, for its cooperation, will be exempt from the program’s restrictions on tourists. Reduced in numbers by half over the past twenty years, only 167 coffee shops remain in Amsterdam. 

Legislation for a five-year cannabis legalization pilot program was introduced to Dutch lawmakers in early April. The program would allow cultivation in six to ten municipalities which could sell cannabis to coffee shops and, presumably, disrupt the illegal supply chain. 

Uruguay 

As citizens of the first country in the world to fully legalize cannabis, Uruguayans have been able to purchase flower over the counter at select local pharmacies since last summer. They may purchase up to forty grams per month, and the government-controlled price is roughly USD $2.50 per gram. 

So far, 220,000 Uruguayans have registered for access to legal cannabis, but the presence of only two licensed cultivators and a lack of banking resources are creating obstacles for the legal market, according to officials at the country’s regulatory agency. U.S. bank regulators play a role in international banks’ reluctance to accommodate cannabis businesses in other countries. With recreational legalization in Canada pending for early August, Uruguayan officials hope issues will ease with the opportunity to access Canadian banks. 

Citizens also are allowed to grow marijuana for personal use or obtain cannabis at cannabis clubs, which may have up to forty-five members and grow up to ninety-nine plants. 

In March, Washington D.C.-based nonprofit public policy think tank the Brookings Institution issued a report on Uruguay’s regulatory model and cited “important lessons” to be learned for other countries grappling with legalization. Among several suggestions in the report: Uruguayan policymakers should explore access to global banking resources, implement widespread education and training about new regulations, and consider wider retail distribution to alleviate shortages on the consumer end. Brookings also recommended: 

  • In order for the regulated cannabis market to displace the black market more effectively, authorities may need to reconsider rules that require users to choose only one of the three legal forms of cannabis supply: home-growing, clubs, or commercial purchase. 
  • Uruguayan authorities also may need to address a growing informal market by allowing legal sales to non-citizen tourists.

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