Cannabis: new developments for Europe’s most established drug
Cannabis is one of the longest-established drugs in Europe. It is the most commonly used illicit drug, with nearly 20 % of those in the 15-24 age group reporting having used cannabis in the last year. Internationally and within Europe, cannabis use continues to be a topic that is generating significant policy and public interest, as new developments are triggering a debate on how society should respond to this substance.
A discussion is taking place about the therapeutic value of cannabis, cannabis preparations and medicines derived from the cannabis plant. Some countries have legalized cannabis, provoking consideration of the costs and benefits of different regulatory and control options. This is a complex area. In Europe, considerable policing resources go into cannabis control, with over half of the 1.2 million use or possession for personal use offenses reported in 2017 related to cannabis. Involvement in the cannabis market can also be a driver for youth criminality and
a major source of income for organized crime. In addition, our understanding of the potential health risks from cannabis use, especially among the young, has grown. Cannabis is now the substance most often named by new entrants to specialist drug treatment services as their main reason for seeking help. This is worrying, as over the last few years the EMCDDA’s overall assessment has been that cannabis trends have remained largely stable. Now, however, this is being challenged by new data, where the number of countries is reporting increased use among younger age cohorts.
Adding to this complexity, new forms of cannabis have been developed in recent years as a result of advances in cultivation, extraction and production techniques. Hybrid multi-strain plants yielding higher-potency cannabis have begun to replace established forms of the plant both within Europe and in Morocco, where much of the cannabis resin used in Europe originates. A recent EMCDDA-supported study shows that for both cannabis resin and herb the potency has increased over the last decade. The creation of legal recreational cannabis markets where the drug has been legalized is also driving innovation, with the development of new cannabis products such as edibles, e-liquids, and concentrates. Some of these are now appearing on the European market, where they represent a new challenge for detection and drug control.
Recognizing the now dynamic and complex nature of the cannabis policy sphere, the EMCDDA has launched a new series of publications that provide evidence reviews and analysis on this area. These include an overview of the development of medicinal cannabis provision in the European Union. The informed debate in this area is inhibited by the absence of a common conceptual understanding of medicinal cannabis. This is complicated by the diversity of products available, which can range from medicinal products containing compounds from the cannabis plant to raw cannabis preparations.
Low-THC cannabis products raise regulatory issues
Another example of the rapid developments taking place concerning cannabis has been the appearance in the last 2 years of low-strength herbal cannabis and cannabis oils for sale in health food shops or specialist shops in some EU countries. Sales take place based on the claim that these products have little or no intoxicating effect and therefore are not controlled under drug laws. Cannabis contains many different chemicals, but two cannabinoids, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), attract the most attention. THC is the main substance found in cannabis responsible for its psychoactive effects. Products containing CBD are increasingly marketed with claims about their beneficial effects. The complex and evolving literature on the evidence for medicinal use of both THC and CBD has been addressed in a recent EMCDDA publication. The new products claim to have less than 0.2 % or 0.3 % THC and broadly fit within two categories of products: one aimed at cannabis users for smoking and one — formulations like oils and creams — aimed people interested in possible healthcare uses. Some EU Member States regard low-THC products as cannabis extracts subject to criminal penalties; others consider them medicines that cannot be sold without authorization; a few classify them as products that do not pose a threat to public health and so do not require any licence for trade. This development is raising issues for regulation at both EU and national level.