DEVELOPMENTS IN THE EUROPEAN CANNABIS MARKET | European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Addiction PAPERS

Content: Introduction (p. 3) l Herbal cannabis (p. 4) l Cannabis resin (p. 6) l Concentrated extracts of cannabis (p. 10) l Edibles (p. 12) l Synthetic cannabinoids (p. 13) l Cannabis-based medicinal products (p. 13) l Conclusions (p. 15) l References (p. 16) l Acknowledgements (p. 19)

Key points:

This publication reviews how a number of factors impact on the diversity and content of products and forms of cannabis available in Europe. Drivers of change in this area include policy developments in Europe and elsewhere; advances in production and extraction techniques; and consumer interest.

Understanding and monitoring trends in the composition of cannabis products available to European consumers is important, as it is likely to both be associated with the attractiveness of different products to consumers and have implications for associated health risks.

This analysis focuses on cannabinoids (such as Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD)), which are synthesised by/in the cannabis plant. THC is the most important component of cannabis in relation to its attractiveness for recreational use, although consumer interest in CBD is growing, both because it is considered to have some beneficial effects and because it may moderate some of the less desirable effects associated with THC consumption.

In recent years, various synthetic cannabinoids have appeared in Europe and complicate further analysis in this area. Some of these are now controlled internationally and national legislation in some countries also restricts the use of synthetic cannabinoids or specific synthetic cannabinoids. While synthetic cannabinoids mimic to some extent the action of THC in the brain, they should be distinguished from natural cannabis-based products. This is because they may sometimes be associated with both greater and different health risks.

Analysis shows that THC concentrations have risen in European cannabis. Recently, this increase has been most pronounced for cannabis resin. For herbal cannabis, increases in potency have been associated with the growth in domestic production, under intensive conditions, within the EU. For cannabis resin, changes in THC concentrations have been attributed to the introduction of strains of cannabis plants in Morocco producing high levels of THC, although other factors may have also played a part in this development. 

Recommended citation: European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (2019), Developments in the European cannabis market, EMCDDA Papers, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg. 

Advances in extraction techniques can be, and are now being, used to produce extremely high-potency products known as cannabis concentrates. 

§§- Cannabis can also be prepared in edible form and may be sold in this form ready for use. The prevalence of concentrated and edible cannabis products has increased in legal markets in the United States, which may indicate that similar trends could arise as regulated medical (and potentially recreational) use of cannabis gains traction in Europe. However, it should be recognised that the regulatory frameworks in the United States and Europe are markedly different. 

§§- Monitoring developments in the area of cannabis is also complicated because the number of cannabis-based medical and health-orientated products has expanded. These include products manufactured to pharmaceutical quality standards, and others with varied composition and product descriptions. Some of these may potentially be confused with forms of cannabis available on the illicit drug market. 

§§- Recently, cannabis products with very low levels of THC have also appeared on the market in some European countries based on the argument that the THC concentrations are so low that they are not restricted by drug control regulations. These can be sold as foodstuffs, healthcare products and cosmetics. CBD oils have recently been marketed as ‘food’ supplements and these oils may also contain THC, although usually at low concentrations. 

§§- Overall, the dynamic nature of the current cannabis market and diversification of cannabis products available gives rise to considerable challenges for existing monitoring approaches. Sound information on the nature of the cannabis available to European consumers is important for policy and regulatory discussions. In addition, new forms of cannabis have the potential to impact on the public health consequences of cannabis use; the attractiveness of cannabis products to users; and regulation across a range of complex policy areas. There is therefore an urgent need to both improve the conceptualisation of the cannabis market for monitoring purposes and develop a comprehensive set of tools that are commensurate with the growing needs in this area.

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