An Overview of the CBD & Hemp Situation in Europe

TL/DR Summary: 

  • Europe was an industrial hemp ‘powerhouse’ up until 1961 when the EU declared all Cannabis strains illegal (including non-psychoactive hemp)
  • In 2019, the EU declared that CBD was not a narcotic and that it now fell under the Novel Food Act; implementation by member states is optional
  • The EU allows max. 0.3% THC in any hemp grown and CBD products derived therefrom; a national limit higher than 0.3% is allowed
  • The potential of hemp is vast; which makes for a demanding legislative task
  • Medical Cannabis programs are positively progressing in 10+ European countries
  • The EU subsidies farmers to grow hemp for its many sustainable benefits
  • Hemp is making a promising comeback in the EU; an improved legal framework and distribution model is on its way

Did you know that, as recently as the 1950s, hemp used to be a staple crop throughout Europe – and that Europe used to be one of the world’s biggest cultivators of hemp?

However, in recent decades, political setbacks have meant delays in the EU’s regulatory process of hemp. It’s also why member states are now practically left to their own decisions when controlling hemp and its active compound CBD. 

But the EU does, of course, also have some legislative power. 

In this unique legal situation, how do the hemp laws of every individual member state and the EU coexist – and have they ever “clashed”? What’s the theoretical outcome of political decisions – and how are they turning out in practice? Finally, will Europe ever be able to restore its historically essential relationship with hemp?

How Did Hemp Go from Being “Everywhere” to “Niche”?

Did you know that hemp was a staple crop all over Europe used for many of our everyday needs?

That was right until 1961 when the United Nations passed the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, making all +750 Cannabis strain variations fall into one narrow category (despite hemp being non-psychoactive). Only decades later, exemptions were made to the Convention, permitting farmers to cultivate hemp again but under a new set of rules.

Through progress in scientific research since the prohibition of 1961, we’ve learned that there is significantly more to learn and benefit from the hemp plant than first thought. However, the prohibition has webbed hemp’s many properties and uses into one restrictive definition – which is virtually what we’re trying to untangle until this day.

What we’re dealing with are: 

  • Cannabis Sativa strains with naturally higher THC amounts: most often referred to when recreational use or medical cannabis is discussed.
  • Hemp strains with naturally low amounts of THC: for industrial purposes such as textile, concrete, food and CBD products.

Cannabidiol (CBD) is found naturally in both but to a higher degree in hemp.

What’s the Case, Today, for CBD Products on an EU Level?

While CBD products have been around for decades, it’s fair to say that it was only around 2018 that they started to gain real momentum.

This year, CBD products saw an unexpected surge in demand across the world including the European continent. During this time, they were most likely sold as food supplements. 

At this point, however, CBD was not specifically mentioned anywhere in any EU catalogues. This made it a legal “grey area” where some argued it fell under the predominantly psychoactive Cannabis strain (despite CBD being non-psychoactive) while others argued under the laws of legal industrial hemp because that’s where the products are generally derived from.

In 2019, the European Union finally confirmed that CBD was not a narcotic

However, it was also newly declared that CBD extracts were now listed under the Novel Food Act as they deemed them to be “food that had not been consumed to a significant degree by humans in the EU before 15 May 1997”. 

This basically meant that for CBD products to continue being sold as food supplements, each product would first have to receive individual authorisation by the EU (a procedure that can cost €100,000+).

Some discussions have since revolved around whether CBD really is a “novel food’” with the main argument that the plant has been extensively used in societies for millennia. In an attempt to circumvent the Act, you will find that many CBD extracts are now being sold as aromatic oils or even pet oils instead.

The Novel Food guideline is not legally binding, meaning that some EU countries have decided to implement it while others have not.

The Netherlands, for instance, have carried on allowing the sale of CBD products in shops around the country just as they did before. And even if governments do declare they follow the guidelines, sometimes you can still find disparities within the countries themselves. For instance, the German Federal Office mentions that CBD products should follow the Novel Food guideline, but you will find various CBD products in several of the country’s largest retailers.

You will also find that member states can interpret EU statements quite differently.

For instance, the EU is currently evaluating the safety profile of hemp leaves for consumption as a tea product. Denmark has interpreted this by allowing it on the market until evidence points it to be unsafe for human consumption – in Belgium, they have not permitted the use or sale of it until evidence has, instead, proven it safe.

Nevertheless, there are some EU ground rules:

A maximum limit of 0.3% THC in any hemp grown and products extracted therefrom (in 2023, this limit has been raised from 0.2% to 0.3%). 

This means that a member state cannot impose a maximum national limit of – say – 0,1% THC and prosecute a company’s product for having a THC content of 0,15%. However, if a country has declared a national limit higher than 0.3% THC, then the EU allows that

Basically, member states can manoeuvre the market as they like as long as any imposed laws, principles or actions do not contradict those of the EU. Here’s a real case example of that: 

In 2019, a French CBD company was sued in a French court for having sold CBD products in France that had been legally extracted from the whole hemp plant in The Czech Republic – whereas in France only the fibre and seeds from hemp were considered legal. The European Court of Justice later invalidated the marketing ban ruling that was made against the CBD company by deeming it as a breach of the EU’s Free Movement of Goods principle

On a similar note, both the cultivation and supply of hemp fibres cannot be prohibited by any EU member state if farmers fulfil the strict conditions under the EU Regulation 1308/2013. New countries joining the European Union, in which it was illegal to grow the plant, have sometimes had to change their law to accord with this common EU law.

Why is Hemp & CBD Legislation Challenging for the EU?

You could say CBD is nothing new: it has always been present in all strains that have been utilised throughout Europe’s history, but it is only recently that the compound has become a stand-alone product. This introduced a new bureaucratic task for the EU of positioning this specific composition into legislation.

A more adequate legal framework in the EU is coming along, but this process has proven to be unusually demanding. This is mostly due to the hemp plant having a significant influence on many areas throughout our society – all from medical, commercial, political, social, recreational, and so on. That’s why inputs from different organisations, from different countries, are necessary to create a solid value chain.

This is the beauty, but perhaps also the downside of hemp. There is such a vast range of potential for everyone to obtain from the plant that it’s possibly also slowing down the process for many of those who could benefit from it the most.

Finally, dealing with the vague legislative territory around this topic, it’s understandable that member states are being extra cautious about proposing any new plans. If badly crafted, they can also end up being thrown out by the European Court of Justice, ultimately, further delaying the process of progressive legislation.

Progress in Medical Cannabis Throughout Europe

Multiple European countries have already accepted the use of Cannabis in medical treatment. A small handful of those include Germany, France, Italy, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and Romania.

It means that these countries are carrying out nationwide programs where patients can apply to have medical-grade Cannabis prescribed for their various medical needs. Some of these can include multiple scleroses, cancer, epilepsy, nerve pain and nausea.

None of the programs have been discontinued; more countries only seem to join the medical movement. 

Did You Know that the EU Remains a Top Cultivator of Hemp?

Between 1993 and 1996, the cultivation and supply of hemp for its fibres became legal again in most member states. 

Today, many EU countries cultivate hemp and altogether still cultivate considerably more than the USA (which has also made quite a name for themselves in this industry recently). In 2016, European farmers grew about 35,000 hectares of hemp while the USA grew almost 4000. France accounts for 70% of the total and The Netherlands, second, with 10%

Up until the prohibition in 1961, however, Italy alone had 100,000 hectares of hemp fields

Despite Europe being far from its earlier hectare count, the numbers are rapidly growing: from 2015 to 2019, there’s been a 75% increase in fields dedicated to European industrial hemp cultivation.

A major reason for that is that hemp offers numerous environmental benefits  – see the many arguments the EU makes for promoting the cultivation of hemp.

Where is Hemp & the EU Going from Here? 

Clearer regulation is needed and every CBD producer who’s in it for the long term will attest to that. It’s a necessary step to form a more systematic and reliable distribution of CBD products to consumers. 

Some companies took advantage of the lack of regulation which led to the wide distribution of mislabeled and dishonest products on the market. Regulation will help filter out these players just in it for “the quick buck”.

Despite today’s intricate market state, we are seeing promising developments. They are perhaps more so happening on an individual member-state basis rather than as a uniform motion: country after country is legalising medical cannabis, Malta became the first ever EU country to legalise recreational Cannabis use, Germany is expected to legalise within a year, and so on.

Although hemp products have no direct association with the recreational use of Cannabis, acceptance of one may lead to acceptance of another strain within the same plant family. This overall greater acceptance should then, hopefully, lead to more scientific research – the most powerful tool we have to appropriately understand and integrate the plant’s beneficial effects into our societies.

There is also some progress on an EU level: in 2023, a new THC limit for hemp varieties has been introduced, moving the maximum THC content from 0.2% to 0.3%. Although small, this one per cent increase will help restore Europe’s competitive advantage on the global market and introduce about 500 more hemp varieties in the EU catalogue. Farmers may even receive EU subsidies for growing these select varieties.

While being a well-known plant in our past, we may consider this the first time that it is being integrated into our societies on such broad and official terms. We are sure that with growing experience and expertise on the subject, we will see a more harmonious (re)integration of hemp in Europe.

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What LAYV® users say

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