This Is the State of Cannabis in Europe

By Jon Young on March 9, 2017

Medical: Limited forms of medical marijuana (MMJ) are legal in approximately 20 European countries with Ireland, Croatia, Cyprus and Germany recently introducing legislation to legalize at least limited forms. 

Recreational: The Netherlands and Spain, while not technically legal, allow for the use of recreational consumption through legal grey areas at coffeeshops and private clubs.

Decriminalized: Cannabis has been decriminalized to some degree in Austria, Belgium, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland and Ukraine.

As several European countries face important elections this year, politicians are taking note of the continuing success of legalization efforts in the United States. For the moment, cannabis is illegal throughout Europe, but as polls continue to rise in favor of recreational and medical cannabis, it is only a matter of time before Europeans follow suit. 

Positive results from Portugal’s decriminalization of all drugs in 2001 and subsequent reduction of drug use by young people led many countries to enact similar policies. The countries listed below are a snapshot of the latest developments on the path toward cannabis reform.  


France is currently one of the harshest members in the EU on punitive measures directed at drug offenders who receive up to one year imprisonment and a €3,750 fine. However, more than 80 percent of the French believe current laws are ineffective, while 52 percent favor some sort of legalization, according to a 2016 Ipsos poll. With the upcoming elections only months away, many candidates have openly supported drug reform, and one fast-rising candidate, Benoît Hamon, a pro-cannabis Socialist candidate, is within striking distance of taking the election. 

“The prohibition of cannabis is a failure,” Hamon wrote in a tweet. “I will commit to its legalization so that the police can concentrate on other priorities.”

Two leading candidates, Marine Le Pen of the National Front Party and Emmanuel Macron, an independent candidate, have different views. Ms. Le Pen is strongly in favor of prohibition (and echoes Trump’s anti-immigrant nationalist agenda), and Macron favors decriminalization. With Macron favored to win in the second round of voting, a strong chance exists that cannabis will be decriminalized within a year. 


Early this year, the German parliament passed a law expanding its limited MMJ program to allow access to patients facing a number of serious illnesses, including multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, serious appetite loss and nausea from chemotherapy. 

“Seriously ill patients must be treated in the best ways possible,” said Health Minister Hermann Gröhe, who proposed the law. 

Less than a 1,000 patients are currently enrolled in the program, but with the easing of restrictions and the addition of more qualifying conditions, the number is expected to increase drastically.

While it remains illegal in Germany to possess or cultivate cannabis without permission, the actual consumption of cannabis is considered legal due to it being considered self-harm, and possession of small amounts is mostly decriminalized. 

The Netherlands

Though cannabis in the Netherlands is not technically legal, a grey area allows coffeeshops that meet certain criteria to receive permits. And though coffeeshops areallowed to sell cannabis in small amounts, they are not allowed to buy their own supply. In other words, many coffeeshops have to employ a third-party agent to source their cannabis from the black market or illegally grow it, adding to the strange legal stew of half-legalities.  

Early this year, the Dutch parliament approved a bill that would allow the professional cultivation of cannabis, meaning coffeeshops could grow their own supply and potentially deal a blow to the black market drug trade and legal confusion. While the bill still needs to pass the upper house, many see this as a step in the right direction.

"It is good news for the coffeeshop industry,” said Joachim Helms, chairman of the Coffee Shop Union. “Because it will finally—if it passes the First Chamber—put an end to a lot of stuff we can't organize in a normal and transparent way.”


Irish legislators passed a bill allowing doctors to prescribe cannabis to patients with certain illnesses after a report commissioned by the government gave approval. 

“I believe this report marks a significant milestone in developing policy in this area,” said Simon Harris, an Irish health minister. “This is something I am eager to progress, but I am also obligated to proceed on the basis of the best clinical advice.”

The trial program is planned to run for five years and be closely monitored by Irish health service experts.


Since the establishment of the first cannabis club in 2001, Spain has been christened the New Amsterdam as clubs proliferate and membership skyrockets into the hundreds of thousands. In Barcelona alone, more than 200 clubs allow members to cultivate and consume cannabis within the privacy of the premises. 

In 2015, several Supreme Court rulings led to fines and jail time for some club operators, indicating the government’s view that large-scale clubs were tantamount to drugtrafficking. The result was the closing of many of the larger clubs and the tightening of membership restrictions. 

While Cannabis is technically illegal in Spain (but decriminalized), the government is not allowed to prosecute you if you grow cannabis in your own home, consume it there and don’t sell it. This allows for the legal loophole of private cultivation and consumption as well as cannabis clubs where members indirectly acquire cannabis through membership fees and consume it in private. 

Whether the Spanish government will be able to influence its fiercely independent sub-states, especially the Basque and Catalan regions where cannabis clubs are the most numerous, remains to be seen. For now, most memberships involve forms and phone calls, and the help of a local greatly eases the process, though you can find people handing out fliers advertising easy membership on streets around the Gothic Quarter in Barcelona. Travel expert Rick Steves is a member of two, one in Barcelona and one in Madrid, according to his blog.

“We are used to dealing with old laws that should be changed but don’t,” club operators told Steves. “[So] we build little fantasies to dance artfully around them.”

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