How To Break Into Europe's Untapped Cannabis Markets, According To The Experts

With a rapidly changing and geographically inconsistent legal landscape for cannabis in Europe, defining an optimal market entry strategy can be a serious challenge for licensed producers in North America and other countries hoping to wheel and deal in Europe. Still, the market is there and ready for conscientious producers to make their mark.

Speaking at the World Cannabis Congress, UK-based advocates Blair Gibbs, an Advisor for think-tank Volteface, and George McBride, a partner at consultancy group Hanway Associates, discussed these trade barriers as well as the potential social and economic benefits of doing business with European countries.

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Mirroring a statement made by Hon. Anne McLellan during the Congress’ opening keynote, McBride stressed the importance of legal compliance, especially during these first few years of legalized import/export opportunities.

“If we see poorly regulated operators failing to meet the standards imposed on them by European nation states, then there are going to be huge setbacks for this industry,” said McBride. “So compliance, compliance, compliance--that’s the most important thing.”

Major European markets unlikely to legalize recreational cannabis anytime soon

Both Gibbs and McBride expressed how impressed they have been with the speed of progress over the past few years, though they still think it highly unlikely that they will see recreational cannabis legalized in France, GermanyUnited Kingdom or other major European markets anytime soon.

“The questions I’ve been hearing have mostly surrounded when the medical will transition into the recreational,” said McBride. “[In Canada] that’s been quite rapid. Increasingly, the trend is that it will happen more in smaller, more nimble states, whereas the UK government is a behemoth."

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So although the primary consideration right now is solely focused on cannabis for medical use, even that is facing a great deal of stigma across Europe. Gibbs explained how, in many ways, the matter lies squarely in the lap of government, since - based on opinion polls - the general public in countries like the UK don't need more convincing that cannabis is medicine.

“Politicians in the UK know that we are dealing with something that is broadly popular,” he said. “They just haven’t got their head around how to do it in a way that can be sustained for the long term.”

Which is not to say that there isn’t interest, but rather, that the legislative process in the larger countries of Europe are slow-moving and fraught with red tape. Conversely, in the smaller countries, much more can be accomplished at a much faster pace.

“Every country is different,” said Gibbs. “Every country in Europe has a different path to go on. Their laws around cannabis are different, and the social context and political appetite for change will be different as well.”

Because of this, not all European countries can be expected to be dealt with in the same way, especially with a mind to properly comply with their respective rules and regulations surrounding cannabis distribution. Therefore, a pan-European approach may not be an effective strategy for proper compliance.

“It’s the wrongheaded approach,” McBride told Civilized after the panel. “Choose a country and pursue that country on an individual basis, I’d say. Take it one at a time.”

Branching into European markets

While the benefits for a larger business looking to break into Europe are pretty obvious. He pointed out that there are other possibilities open to smaller companies who are looking for alternative, more affordable approaches to entering into the European market.

“If you’re a small licensed producer in Canada, why not take one country, say Switzerland, and partner with a university there?” he posited. “That gives you a local presence, relevance, respectability—and you can do it cheap.”

Throughout the panel, Gibbs and McBride repeatedly expressed that outside political influence and the fact that other countries are reforming their drug laws could effect Europe’s position on cannabis. But they also made it clear that, as of yet, the talks of legalization in both Canada and the United States have had little consequence on European legislation. Still, they encourage more communication between the continents on the topic of cannabis.

“When you come to London, there are opportunities there to really speak with authority to those who need to listen,” said Gibbs. “There are important lessons from Canada that still need to be heard in the UK.”

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However, since many European governments are dismissive or largely disinterested in the issue, and their cannabis industries are too small to garner much political clout, this exchange of ideas between continents could prove difficult. The question of who is to coordinate these discussions becomes a major point of interest.

In McBride’s estimation, this point of contact ought to be himself, along with the other partners at Hanway Associates, who make it their goal to connect influencers on both continents.

“That’s what we want to do at Hanway,” he told Civilized. “We come to Canada, meet policy makers, bring them back and introduce them to policy makers in the UK. So, if you’re a Canadian licensed producer, and want to sponsor five, well-trained cannabis doctors to come over, we have the ability to introduce them to a room of doctors in order to facilitate that conversation.”

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